We are increasingly exposed to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. It is therefore important to continue research into their potential risk to our health. The GOLIAT project will do this by focusing on two specific populations: young people, who are considered the most vulnerable, and workers, who are the most exposed. In this article, we focus on the first group: children, adolescents and young adults.
Major advances in mobile and connected technologies in recent years have meant that young people have naturally adopted e-learning, online gaming, streaming, text and audio messaging and video calling, among others. At this early age, children, adolescents and young people are more exposed to radio frequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) from new generation wireless networks such as 5G (fifth generation mobile technologies), although we know little about their actual exposure. On the other hand, they are not only more exposed to these fields, they are also potentially more vulnerable to their possible harmful effects because they are at a critical stage in their development, especially brain development.
Much research has been done in recent decades on exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields and their possible health effects. No adverse effects have been found at the low (athermal) levels commonly used in telecommunications, but epidemiological and experimental studies suggest possible neuropsychological effects, e.g. on cognitive function, mental health and sleep, particularly in children.
GERoNiMO, the first major project on electromagnetic fields
One of the most comprehensive and successful projects investigating electromagnetic fields is GERoNiMO (Generalised EMF research using novel methods), which was funded by the European Commission.
The results from this project showed that:
- Higher brain exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields from multiple sources and phone calls was associated with lower non-verbal cognition at 9-11 years of age.
- Higher exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields from multiple sources was associated with reduced non-verbal memory in children aged 12-17 years after one year of follow-up, especially in those who held the phone next to the right hemisphere, while no association with verbal memory was observed.
- No associations were observed between the dose of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields received by the brain and symptoms after one year of follow-up.
- Children with high exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields in the brain from evening-time phone use had shorter total sleep time.
However, these results should be interpreted with caution because of the possibility of residual confounding by other factors related to the use of mobile phones beyond RF EMF exposure, as well as the possibility of reverse causality (i.e. that children with problems are more likely to use the devices than those without problems). In addition, the exploratory nature of these studies, in which many hypotheses were tested, may have led to chance findings.
GOLIAT (5G expOsure, causaL effects, and rIsk perception through citizen engAgemenT) is a new five-year project funded by the European Commission involving 21 institutions in 11 countries (www.projectgoliat.eu). GOLIAT aims to build on previous studies using innovative approaches to understand how young people are exposed to RF-EMF, in particular 5G, and to assess its potential causal effects.
To overcome the limitations of previous studies, GOLIAT will focus on repeated measurements on both exposures and outcomes to avoid reverse causality, and on the use of advanced statistical methods to infer causality, including approaches that control for unknown or unmeasured confounding and approaches that adjust for observed background covariates. GOLIAT will also develop novel tools to monitor the evolution of exposure levels and patterns in different populations and will engage appropriate stakeholders to improve the perception, communication and management of any associated risks using an integrative and transdisciplinary pan-European approach.
The expected outcomes of GOLIAT will serve to provide robust evidence on the potential effects of (5G) RF-EMF exposure in young people and contribute to the development of guidelines for prevention/reduction of exposure from new generation wireless communication networks, including the Internet of Things.
By Mònica Guxens, #ProjectGoliat Coordinator.