All radiation is harmful

The fear of radiation : How dangerous are cell phones and power poles really?

The smartphone searches for the network, the WLAN router flashes and the high-voltage line crackles in front of the house: in everyday life we ​​are almost constantly surrounded by radiation. But while some hardly worry about it, others worry about the health effects. A new study by the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) shows how sensitive Germans are to the issue.

How big are Germans' worries about radiation?

According to the representative study, radioactive radiation worries almost three-quarters of the respondents “somewhat” or “very”. More than one in two is concerned about radiation from cell phone masts, cell phones and tablets. More than a third have concerns about the radiation emitted by power lines.

Risk researcher Pia-Johanna Schweizer from the Potsdam Institute for Transformative Sustainability Research also observes increased caution among the population: "The inevitability of radiation is perceived as a threat, as a loss of control."

The expansion of mobile communications plans to close all radio gaps as far as possible - so one cannot avoid this. “With some people this goes hand in hand with a feeling of being at the mercy.” According to the BfS study, other forms of radiation, which are also less discussed in public, hardly cause fear - despite proven risks. Few Germans, for example, know that radon leaking from the ground is the second most common cause of lung cancer.

What types of radiation are there?

A basic distinction is made between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is very energetic, has a short wavelength and a high frequency. This includes X-rays. Ionizing radiation is also produced when atomic nuclei are split, as in the fuel rods of a nuclear reactor. Because it is able to knock electrons out of the shell of atoms or molecules, it can be dangerous for the organism.

In contrast, non-ionizing radiation with less energy and lower frequency is omnipresent in everyday life. This includes, for example, electromagnetic radiation from smartphones and WiFi routers. "There are also external cell phone masts, high-voltage lines, electrical appliances and rail lines," explains Tristan Jorde, a graduate engineer and environmental advisor from the Hamburg consumer center. "All of this produces a radiation cloud."

What effect does everyday electromagnetic radiation have on us?

The dangerousness of radiation results from two factors: intensity and duration. Warmth in particular is considered a health risk. Similar to a microwave, the molecules in the body are set in motion and thus heated. This can cause damage. Therefore, most of the limit values ​​refer to it.

Jorde criticizes, however, that protective measures only refer to the thermal effect: “Very little is known about electrical and magnetic effects on the human body.” Long-term studies document, for example, a higher risk of cancer in rats due to high electromagnetic radiation even without heat.

“We should take these findings seriously,” says Sarah Drießen from the Research Center for Electro-Magnetic Environmental Compatibility, an interdisciplinary facility at the University Clinic in Aachen. But she also warns: "A single study is an indication, not a proof."

What is electrosensitivity?

On the Internet, many people report headaches, heart problems and difficulty concentrating - allegedly caused by radiation. According to BfS surveys, one to two percent of the population describe themselves as "electrosensitive". Up to ten percent feel impaired by electromagnetic fields. Can this be?

"So far it has not been possible to establish a connection," says Achim Neuhäuser from the BfS. “But those affected actually show symptoms. Worrying can also make you sick. ”If in doubt, Neuhäuser recommends a visit to an environmental medical advice center or an ambulance. The Federal Environment Agency provides an overview of this on its website.

Is the new 5G cellular standard dangerous?

According to current knowledge, not. The new technology will initially be used in frequency ranges around 700 MHz as well as 2 GHz and 3.6 GHz. That hardly deviates from today's usual frequencies. If the network is expanded, however, much higher frequencies will also be added, about which not much is known yet. Since this radiation is extremely short-wave, it hardly penetrates the body, but is absorbed in the upper layers of the skin.

Scientists at the Jacobs University in Bremen are currently researching whether the radiation could damage the genome, for example. Also, because of the short range for 5G, significantly more transmission masts are required. The BfS cannot yet estimate exactly how this will affect the individual's radiation exposure.

Why is the subject so controversial?

Above all, the planned 5G network and the energy transition have made many citizens aware of cell phone beams and high-voltage lines, says researcher Drießen. There are numerous studies on the risks of electromagnetic fields - Drießen alone knows more than 27,000 publications on this.

The studies often produce different results. “I can understand that it makes people feel insecure,” she says. At the same time there is a lot of alarmism and false expectations: "You cannot scientifically prove that a certain thing has no risks."

Critics also see too close a closeness between business, science and authorities. The actually independent international research association ICNIRP, for example, is based directly at the Federal Office for Radiation Protection and was at least initially considered to be close to the industry. “Actually, the BfS should act as a counterweight to industry,” says consumer advocate Jorde. But it is rather benevolent.

How can you protect yourself in everyday life?

“Numerous ineffective products to ward off radiation are being developed. That's charlatanry, ”warns consumer advocate Jorde. He recommends the same thing as scientists and the BfS: If you want to reduce radiation exposure, you should only make calls with a good network. Because the transmission power of the devices depends heavily on the local reception.

So if you make phone calls in the tunnel, you are exposed to more radiation. A headset is also recommended so that the smartphone is not held directly on the head. At night, the cell phone can be switched to flight mode. And the wireless router should be in rooms that are used less often - not at your desk at head height.

Is there also radiation that is beneficial to health?

It is undisputed that X-rays, for example, are useful for diagnosing and then treating injuries and diseases. The same applies to the irradiation of tumors. A well-established therapy for ankylosing spondylitis, a painful inflammatory stiffening of the spine, is radiating, intravenously administered, low-dose radium-224 chloride.

There are studies of medical staff that show that people who have been exposed to increased x-ray doses for years compared to the general population are less likely to develop cancer. Only at significantly higher doses did they also have an increased risk.

Radon radiation could even lower the risk of cancer in certain constellations. This is indicated by studies that have compared the inhalation of the gas with the cancer rate over the years. The effect could at least be determined in people who did not smoke as well.

One theory of the researchers involved is that in such cases, too, biological damage would result from radiation. However, these would be repaired by the body's self-healing powers and apparently balanced out by the positive effects of the gas. In the end, it might not only be worthwhile for researchers to know more about this.

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