5G technologies: radio waves and health

Published 3 October 2019

Mobile telecommunications technology has developed through several generations and there are now many 2G, 3G and 4G base stations installed throughout the environment providing services to users of mobile phones and other devices.

Public exposure

Over the decades, since the networks were first introduced, there has been a general trend towards increasing numbers of smaller transmitters that individually provide services to smaller geographical areas and have reducing radiated powers.

Against this background, many measurements have been made and these continue to show that exposures of the general public to radio waves are well within the international health-related guideline levels that are used in the UK. These guidelines are from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and underpin health protection policies at UK and European levels.

In relation to the implementation of 5G devices and networks, this technology is at an early stage and reflects the latest evolution in mobile communications technology. Current technical standards that draw on the ICNIRP guidelines will apply to the products that are developed. UK network operators are already committed to complying with the ICNIRP guidelines.

5G frequencies

With the increase in the volume of information being transferred, more spectrum is being made available and the highest frequencies being discussed for future use by 5G are around 10 times higher than those used by current network technologies, up to a few tens of gigahertz (GHz).

Their use is not new, and they have been used for point-to-point microwave links and some other types of transmitters that have been present in the environment for many years. ICNIRP guidelines apply up to 300 GHz, well beyond the maximum (few tens of GHz) frequencies proposed for 5G.

Research studies

Exposure to radio waves is not new and health-related research has been conducted on this topic over several decades. In particular, a large amount of new scientific evidence has emerged since the year 2000 through dedicated national and international research programmes that have addressed concerns about rapidly proliferating wireless technologies.

The main focus of recent research studies has been on exposure to the types of radio signals used by current communications technologies and at the frequencies they use, up to a few GHz.

Fewer studies have been carried out at higher frequencies but the biophysical mechanisms that govern the interaction between radio waves and body tissues are well understood at higher frequencies and are the basis of the present ICNIRP restrictions. The main change in using higher frequencies is that there is less penetration of radio waves into body tissues and absorption of the radio energy, and any consequent heating, becomes more confined to the body surface.


It is possible that there may be a small increase in overall exposure to radio waves when 5G is added to an existing network or in a new area. However, the overall exposure is expected to remain low relative to guidelines and, as such, there should be no consequences for public health.

The UK Health Security Agency is committed to monitoring the evidence applicable to this and other radio technologies, and to revising its advice, should that be necessary.