Chapter 1 - Introduction
Reference to the Committee
On 8 December 1999, on the motion of Senator Allison,
the Senate referred an inquiry into telecommunications and electromagnetic
emissions to the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts
References Committee, not to commence before 31 March 2000 and for report on the 31 October 2000. The reporting date was
subsequently extended to 4 May 2001. The full terms of reference may be found at page iii.
Conduct of the inquiry
Advertising the inquiry
The Committee advertised the inquiry on 15 April 2000 in each state and territory capital
city newspaper and The Weekend Australian, with the nominated closing
date for submissions of 16 June 2000. Details of the inquiry were also placed on the Committee’s
homepage on the Internet.
Evidence to the inquiry
The Committee received 149 written submissions
and a number of attachments and supplementary submissions which were published
(except for the four whose authors made a request for confidentiality) and are
publicly available through the Committee secretariat. The Committee also
received follow up material from evidence, details of which are listed at
Origin of written submissions
Course of the inquiry
The Committee conducted six public hearings as
part of the inquiry, in: Canberra on 31 August 2000, 8 September 2000, 7 November 2000 and 2 March 2001, in Melbourne on 22 September 2000; and in Sydney on 16 November 2000.
During the course of the hearings, the Committee
took evidence from 13 organisations, 7 Commonwealth Government Agencies
and Councils and heard evidence from 16 individual witnesses. Details are
listed at Appendix 2.
Hansard recorded 411 pages of evidence. The
transcripts of evidence are available at: https://www.aph.gov.au/hansard/senate/commttee/comsen.htm
During the course of the hearings the Committee
also received a number of tabled documents. These are listed at Appendix 3 and
available on request from the Committee secretariat.
Senate Committee procedures provide that where
evidence ‘adversely reflects’ on a person or an organisation (for example, by
accusing them of deliberate lies or illegal acts), that person or organisation
should have a reasonable right of reply. In a number of cases in this inquiry
the Committee pointed out ‘adverse’ reflections to the affected parties and
invited reply. The replies are part of the public evidence of the inquiry
(unless the Committee accepted a request for confidentiality) and are noted in
The Committee wishes to thank all those who
contributed to the inquiry by preparing written submissions, providing
additional information and material where requested and appearing at public
Terminology and background
Mobile phone usage has increased rapidly over
the past decade with around 8 million Australians owning mobile phones. This figure is part of an
increasing global trend, with roughly 25 million mobile phones in circulation
in Britain (April 2000),
51.5 million phones in Japan (1999), and the 85.2 million in China (2000)
forecast to rise to 240 million by 2005. The rapid adoption of this relatively
new technology has also meant there has been some uncertainty about the health
implications of the proliferation of mobile phones and the supporting
infrastructure. The Committee’s terms of reference for this inquiry serve to
provide a structure for an inquiry into the health effects and appropriate
standards for electromagnetic radiation in the telecommunications sector.
What is electromagnetic radiation?
Electromagnetic radiation refers to the energy
emissions generated from the interaction of an oscillating electric field and a
magnetic field. The electromagnetic spectrum (see Figure 1.2) has various
divisions based on frequency and wavelength, the main one being between
ionising and non-ionising frequencies. Electromagnetic radiation may be
regarded as waves in the air that transmit energy but can also be controlled
through amplitude, pulsing, etc., to transmit speech, TV images and so forth.
Hertz (cycles per second) are used to express the range or spectrum of
frequency of the waves. Kilohertz, megahertz and gigahertz (103, 106
and 109 hertz, respectively) are measurements at the higher
frequencies. The greater the frequency, the shorter the wavelength and the
greater the energy transmitted.
A significant division in the electromagnetic
spectrum is the frequency above 1016 hertz, where waves become
ionising in nature. This means the waves are capable of knocking electrons out
of atoms to form ions. X-rays, ultraviolet rays and gamma rays are examples of
ionising radiation. Ionising radiation is known to be carcinogenic.
Electromagnetic radiation with longer wavelengths than X-rays do not have
sufficient energy to cause ionisation. Areas within this region of the
electromagnetic radiation spectrum are collectively known as non-ionising forms
The non-ionising range of electromagnetic
frequencies can be divided into static electric and magnetic fields, extremely
low frequency (ELF) electric and magnetic fields, intermediate frequency fields
and radiofrequency fields, which can be further subdivided into
radiofrequencies and microwave frequencies. For the purposes of this report,
the term electromagnetic radiation (EMR) is used to refer to radiofrequency
(RF) radiation and the two terms are used interchangeably.
The Electromagnetic Spectrum
Figure 1.2 illustrates some natural and
artificial sources of electromagnetic emissions that exist at different
frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum. Whilst there are radio,
television, radar, mobile phones and microwaves in the radiofrequency field,
the Committee’s inquiry has predominantly focused on the telecommunications
aspect of RF, ie, mobile phones and mobile phone towers. The Committee
received a large number of submissions concerned with other aspects that shall
be discussed later in this chapter.
Figure 1.3 (below) shows the division of the
electromagnetic spectrum into four portions:
- The ionising radiation portion, where direct chemical damage can
- The non-ionising portion of the spectrum, which can be subdivided
- the optical radiation portion, where electron excitation can
occur (eg visible light);
- the portion where the wavelength is smaller than the human body,
and heating can occur (eg microwave ovens, mobile phones, broadcast TV,
FM radio); and
- the portion where the wavelength is much larger than the human
body, and heating seldom occurs (eg AM radio, power-frequency fields, static
Common terms used for mobile phones
Throughout the report a number of terms have
been used interchangeably for mobile phones. These include: cellular phones,
cell phones, radio telephones and wireless phones.
Exposure to radiofrequency radiation
The use of a mobile phone involves transmission
between the phone and a nearby base station, both of which emit RF radiation.
In both cases the level of exposure generally declines with increasing distance
from the source. When using a handset, exposure will primarily apply to the
side of the head against which the mobile phone is being used or the part of
the body nearest to the phone during hands-free use.
A European Commission Report in 1996 referred to
emissions from mobile phones as the following:
The electric and magnetic fields surrounding a radiotelephone
handset near a person’s head are complicated functions of the design and
operating characteristics of the radiotelephone and its antenna, and since the
distances involved are less than one wavelength, exposure is in the
near-field. In this region, electric and magnetic fields do not have a
plane-wave character, but vary considerably from point to point.
This means that the charge and current distribution on the antenna and
radiotelephone handset are important. This is in contrast to the situation of
base stations, where plane-wave approximations can be generally applied,
characterised by a locally uniform distribution of electric and magnetic field
strengths in planes transverse to the direction of propagation (far-field
For the general population, whole body exposure
to mobile phone base station emissions occurs at levels of intensity
considerably lower than those from handsets.
There are different types of cells
(areas) that exist for base stations to communicate with mobile phones. These
cells may be macrocells, microcells and picocells, based
on their size and the power output of the antenna. Macrocells provide
the main basis for the base station network. Base stations for macrocells have
power outputs of tens of watts and communicate with phones up to roughly 35
kilometres away. Microcells are used to improve the main network
through infill, especially where there is a high volume of calls. Places such
as airports, railway stations and shopping centres site microcells and they are
increasing in number as demand for mobile phones grows. The range of
microcells is a few hundred metres and their base stations emit less power than
those for macrocells. The third type of cell used is the picocell.
These base stations are generally situated inside buildings and they have a
lower power output than that of microcells (a few watts). Both microcells and picocells
are used to supplement reception for macrocells.
The fact that the radiofrequency fields produced
by the base stations at points of public access are less than any national or
international radiofrequency exposure standard, has not apparently reduced the
concern of many members of the public.
Factors such as high visibility, and therefore their effects on views and
property values, and the involuntary nature of the exposure to the technology,
in contrast to mobile phones, which are operated at the discretion of the user,
may be contributors to public concern.
Specific Absorption Rate
Absorption Rate (SAR) is the rate of absorption of radiofrequency energy in a
unit mass of tissue. It represents the energy actually absorbed and as such is
an indicator of the measure of the dose of radiofrequency energy.
Biological vs health effects
evidence received by the Committee there are references to biological and
health effects associated with exposure to electromagnetic radiation. Evidence
of a ‘biological’ effect may not represent a ‘health’ effect, be it positive or
adverse. The Royal Society of Canada report defined ‘biological effects’ as
‘physiological, biochemical or behavioural changes induced in an organism,
tissue or cell’, while ‘health effects’ were ‘biological changes induced in an
organism that may be detrimental to that organism’.
the possible health effects of exposure to electromagnetic radiation, the
Committee has adopted the approach taken by the Stewart Inquiry, which adopted
the World Health Organization’s definition of health as being ‘the state of
complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of
disease or infirmity’.
Thermal, athermal and non-thermal effects
While the ‘thermal’ or heating effects of
certain electromagnetic energy levels are accepted as having adverse health
effects, there is some evidence to suggest biological and health effects are
occurring at non-thermal levels. The Royal Society of Canada defines these
Thermal effects often occur when sufficient RF energy is
deposited to cause a measurable increase in the temperature of the sample in
question (eg more than 0.1ºC).
Athermal effects are those occurring when sufficient
energy is deposited to nominally cause an increase in the temperature of the
sample, but no change in temperature is observed due to endogenous [internal]
temperature regulation or exogenous [external] temperature control.
Non-thermal effects are those occurring when the
energy deposited in the sample is less than that associated with normal
temperature fluctuations of the biological system being studied.
Terms such as ‘thermal’, ‘non-thermal’, and ‘athermal’, as
applied to the biological effects of RF exposure, are relative and it is not
possible to identify specific zones of exposure dose at which effects belong in
one or another of these categories. The level of energy deposition that would
cause a thermal effect varies depending on a number of exposure factors,
including: the biological specimen exposed (eg cell culture, small animal,
large animal, human), the frequency of the RF field, the polarization of the
field, and the control of the ambient temperature around the specimen.
Additional issues raised in submissions to the inquiry
about the siting of mobile phone towers and other telecommunications structures
are not confined to fears about potential adverse health effects. The
Committee notes that a number of submissions referred to the visual impact of
the mobile phone facilities, and high voltage powerlines, noise emissions from overhead high
voltage powerlines, invasion of privacy, and the effect on property values.
queried the increasing application of switch mode technology in home appliances
and the impact on levels of electromagnetic emissions was also an area of
received some submissions that raised issues that were not directly relevant to
the current terms of reference, including the regulation of MRIs and X-rays, the effect of electromagnetic fields
and radiation on the navigational ability of birds and whales, the possible impact of digital
radiation on apiculture, labelling for electrical
appliances to warn of possible health risks from electromagnetic fields, the environmental impact from the installation of high power lines, and the inclusion of the subject of non-ionising radiation and living
systems on the curriculum of major Australian universities.
suggested a moratorium on the placement of new mobile phone towers until
further research is conducted, or for the duration of this
Committee’s inquiry. A moratorium on the use of new mobile phones
and related devices for general consumers to enable the health risks to be
adequately researched was also recommended.
submissions suggested that government and local councils should take out
comprehensive insurance in case of litigation in the event that electromagnetic
radiation is proven to cause health effects, while others raised the question as to whether
telecommunications companies are required to have insurance in the event that a
class action is taken against them in relation to the alleged health effects
resulting from exposure to electromagnetic radiation.
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