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LCQ9: Electromagnetic fields generated by electrical products and telecommunication devices

     Following is a question by the Dr Hon Chiang Lai-wan and a written reply by the Secretary for the Environment, Mr Wong Kam-sing, in the Legislative Council today (December 12):


     It has been reported that many types of common household electrical appliances, including television sets, computers, blowers, microwave ovens, etc., generate electromagnetic radiation (ER), and that prolonged exposure to ER will affect human body's central nervous system and functional capabilities.  There have been comments that since the residential units in Hong Kong are generally small, the level of such ER to which Hong Kong people are exposed is higher than that in other places.  On the other hand, the World Health Organization (WHO) studied the issue of "electromagnetic hypersensitivity" in 2005; and last year the International Agency for Research on Cancer under WHO classified the electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" and is conducting research on the acceptable level of exposure to electromagnetic fields for humans.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) whether it has assessed the indoor ER level when the electrical appliances, electronic devices and mobile communications devices, etc. in a household are all in use at the same time, and whether such level will be hazardous to health;

(b) whether the authorities will consider drawing up ER safety standards for household electrical appliances, and requiring that household electrical appliances shall meet such standards for them to be put up for sale, so as to ensure that consumers can pick safer products; if they will, of the detailed arrangements; if not, the reasons for that; and

(c) given that while at present many countries have conducted studies on the impact of ER on health, such studies have different purposes, approaches and conclusions (e.g. in respect of the safe distance and duration for humans' exposure to ER sources), whether the authorities have carried out studies on this subject; if they have, of the findings; if not, the reasons for that?



     According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "electromagnetic hypersensitivity" (EHS) is characterized by a variety of non-specific symptoms, which were attributed by the affected individuals to exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF).  These symptoms include dermatological symptoms, fatigue, dizziness, palpitation, nausea, etc.  However, according to WHO, EHS is not a medical diagnosis and is not part of any recognised syndrome.  There has been no scientific evidence establishing any connection between these non-specific symptoms and exposure to EMF.

     On the other hand, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) launched in 2000 an international study named "Interphone" to research into whether there was any association between mobile phone use and brain tumours.  It has been the largest study of its kind to date.  In 2010, the Interphone study concluded in its report that there were no data indicating any increased risk of glioma and meningioma among those people who had used mobile phones for over 10 years; and there was no consistent trend showing that the risk increased with the use of mobile phone.  While the 10 per cent of the sampled population with the highest cumulative call time had a higher risk of glioma statistically, the limitations in the study methodology could have led to data bias and error.  

     In sum, the Interphone study did not come to any conclusive views suggesting a causal relationship between mobile phone use and brain tumours.   Based on the study, IARC classified radiofrequency EMF as a Group 2B cancer-causing agent (i.e. "possibly carcinogenic to humans") in 2011. But it should be noted that many agents found in our daily lives have also been given the same classification, such as coffee, pickled vegetables, etc.  Moreover, the risk of radiofrequency EMF is far lower than that of asbestos, smoking, second-hand smoking and nicotine, etc.

     With consolidated input from the Department of Health, the Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA) and the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department, our responses to the questions are as follows:

(a) and (b) Based on scientific literature and related health risk assessments, the International Commission on Non-ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has developed the "Guidelines for Limiting Exposure to Time-varying Electric, Magnetic, and Electromagnetic Fields" (ICNIRP Guidelines), which are recognised by the WHO.  The ICNIRP Guidelines have set exposure limits for EMF to offer adequate protection against any possible acute health effects.  The WHO has recommended that national authorities should adopt the ICNIRP Guidelines, and considered that at present, there is insufficient evidence to suggest that EMF exposure under the exposure limits set out in the ICNIRP Guidelines would cause any adverse health effects.  

     Hong Kong has adopted the EMF standards under the ICNIRP Guidelines to ensure public safety.  The Electrical Products (Safety) Regulation (Cap. 406G) (hereinunder "the Regulation") applies to all electrical products designed for household use and supplied in Hong Kong.  All electrical products are required to fulfill the essential safety requirements as stipulated in the Regulation, including the requirement that they would not produce any temperatures, arcs or radiation likely to cause a danger.  Suppliers of electrical products should ensure that the products they supplied comply with the applicable safety requirements of the Regulation.  In respect of EMF, those generated by an electrical product should conform to the standards set by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) or other equivalent organisations, and these standards have been set with reference with to the ICNIRP Guidelines on EMF.

     On the other hand, all mobile phones sold in the Hong Kong market must comply with the HKTA2001 specification issued by the Communication Authority, namely "Compliance Test Specification - Safety and Electrical Protection Requirements for Subscriber Telecommunications Equipment".  The specification is set according to internationally recognised standards and covers the electrical safety requirements for telecommunications equipment, as well as the safety standards on radiofrequency EMF for mobile phones.      According to the above specification, the level of radiofrequency EMF from mobile phones must comply with either the safety limits imposed by the ICNIRP or those by the American National Standards Institute / Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

     At present, OFCA operates the Telecommunications Equipment Evaluation and Certification Scheme to better provide for the evaluation and certification of telecommunications equipment.  Under the scheme, manufacturers and suppliers apply on a voluntary basis for certification of mobile phones to prove that such products comply with the technical specifications concerned.  The vast majority of mobile phone brands sold in Hong Kong have applied for and acquired the certification.  Consumers may look up the list of certified products at the website of OFCA.

     We are not aware of any international studies which suggest that the EMF generated by different household electrical products and telecommunication devices on concurrent use would cause adverse health effects.  In fact, the international testing standards as mentioned above assume that the concerned products are used in very close distance.  Given the strength of EMF decreases with distance, so long as the electrical products and telecommunication devices in question meet the specified safety standards, the EMF so generated by their concurrent use should not cause any health risks under normal circumstances.

(c) The Government has been paying close attention to studies on the effect of EMF on health.  Various international authorities, including the WHO, the IEEE and the ICNIRP, have been closely monitoring and reviewing relevant researches conducted by international research and academic institutions.  While we have not conducted any study in this aspect, we will continue to keep in view the findings of researches on EMF-related health effects as well as relevant reports published by other authorities, in order to keep abreast of the latest development and conduct assessments of risk to public health.

Ends/Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Issued at HKT 14:23


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