by Pierre Le Hir, Le Monde | see original article | commentary: Arthur Firstenberg | translation: André Fauteux
Two years in the works, a new law governing public exposure to electromagnetic fields generated by wireless technology (including base stations, mobile phones, tablets, and WiFi) was adopted by the Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) on Thursday, January 29. It was passed by a majority vote, while the UDI Party abstained – except Bertrand Pancher (Meuse), who voted in favor. The UMP voted against it, seeing it as an barrier to the development of digital industries.
This new law – the first in France to establish a precautionary approach addressing the potential health risks of radio frequencies – is the result of a real obstacle course, during which its initial ambitions were seriously downgraded. The Bill, filed in January 2013 by the MNA for Val-de-Marne Laurence Abeille (Europe Ecologie-Greens) had been referred to committee by the Socialists, before returning to the National Assembly in January 2014, under a watered-down form, and then to be adopted in first reading by the Senate in June 2014.
Despite these successive setbacks, the environmental group decided to submit the Bill to a vote as is, to prevent its return to the Senate where it would have suffered new delays and probably additional knife strokes. Its adoption is thus final. Ms. Abeille stated, “the application decrees will be able to be taken without further delay”.
Not Lowering the Limits
The new law, “An Act on Sobriety, Transparency, Information and Consultation for Exposure to Electromagnetic Waves”, is a compromise between the supporters of a stricter supervision of the sector and wireless phone operators, opposed to any regulatory obstacle. “This present text does not fully address all the issues,” recognizes the Green MNA. “However, it is an essential first step.”
A major point is the introduction into French law a principle of “sobriety” of public exposure to electromagnetic fields. However, virtuous as it is, this principle remains vague and non-binding: while the original Bill was aimed to scale back radiation exposure to“as low as reasonably possible” or 0.6 volts per meter, or V/m (approx 0.1 µW/cm2), this was not successfully included in the final version. Depending on the frequency, the limit of radiation exposure in France is between 41 and 61 V/m (approx 455-955 µW/cm2).
The National Frequency Agency (AFNR) will nevertheless make every year a national census of “atypical points” or “places where the level of public exposure substantially exceeds that generally observed at the national scale”. Network operators will have to remedy them within six months, “subject to technical feasibility”.
The average exposure in France is now about 1 V/m, but a study of the Operations Committee on mobile waves (Copic), covering sixteen municipal representative of the French territory and published in 2013, reported some exposure peaks “up to 10 V/m at maximum transmitter power”, even if the levels remained below 0.7 V/m in 90% of cases. The AFNR considers up to now as atypical places where exposure exceeds 6 V/m (approx 9.5 µW/cm2).
To establish transparency, the installation of antennas will now be subject to prior notice to mayors and presidents of regional-municipal bodies, who may if they choose organize a consultation with residents. In addition, a campaign of “awareness and information on the responsible and rational use of mobile devices” will be conducted.
Wi-Fi Prohibited in Daycare Centers
A section of the Act is devoted to the protection of babies. Wireless devices will be banned in “the spaces dedicated to the care, resting and activities of children under 3 years”, that is to say, nurseries and daycare centers. However, contrary to the initial desire of safety proponents, Wi-Fi will remain permitted in primary schools. It will however be disabled for activities other than “digital educational activities“.
Finally, the often-dramatic situation of people suffering from electro-hypersenitivity receives a first consideration. The government will have to submit a report to Parliament on this issue within a year.
Even though there was much comprised in the end, leading advocates consider the glass half full rather than half empty. “This act, which is the first dedicated to the issue of electromagnetic waves and their impact on the environment and health, marks a first step in the legal recognition of the need to regulate the development of mobile phone communications and all wireless applications,” says the association for the regulation of mobile phone base stations (Priartem). In its view, “this first legislative effort must be an encouragement to go further in protecting people”.
Calls for Caution
This act arrives in a context of accelerated development of sources of electromagnetic fields, in particular with the deployment of very high-speed 4G mobile communications. Aa of January 1st 2015, ANFR indicates the number of 4G base station sites authorized in France was, for all operators, 18,699 – compared to 12,525 a year earlier – and 15,424 are in service.
While there is still no official scientific consensus around the potential health risks from radiofrequencies, many studies and opinions have called for caution. In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified them as “possibly carcinogenic” . And in 2013, the National Agency Health Safety of Food, Environment and Labour (ANSES) recommended to “limit exposure of the population to radiofrequencies – especially from mobile phones – especially for children and heavy users”. It also called for “controlling the overall exposure from base stations”.
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Today the French Parliament passed a law addressing electromagnetic fields and electromagnetic hypersensitivity. While the new law does not go nearly far enough, it is the first of its kind in the world. Among its provisions are the following:
1. Anyone who intends to build one or more radio installations regulated by the ANFR (France’s equivalent of the FCC) must submit to the local government, if requested by the mayor, calculations of electromagnetic fields that will be generated. This information must be made available to the public.
2. A national dialogue committee on levels of public exposure to electromagnetic fields is created within the ANFR. This committee will give information to all stakeholders. The ANFR will give annual reports to the dialogue committee on the results of all electromagnetic field measurements in France as well as measures taken to reduce exposure levels at “atypical” locations where the levels are greater than usual. The ANFR will compile a annual census of atypical exposure locations and periodically report on measures taken to reduce exposure at such locations.
3. Within one year from today, the ANFR will produce a municipal-level map of all cell towers in France.
4. Any advertisement for cell phones must mention, clearly and legibly, the recommended use of an accessory device that reduces exposure of the head to radio frequency radiation. Violators are subject to a fine of 75,000 euros.
5. Advertisements promoting the use of cell phones without such accessories are prohibited. Violators are subject to a fine of 75,000 euros.
6. Anyone selling a cell phone must provide, upon request, an accessory designed for children under 14 years of age that reduces exposure of the head to radio frequency radiation.
7. Wireless internet is prohibited in places dedicated to the welcome, rest, and activities of children under 3 years of age.
8. Wireless access for internet in elementary schools must be disabled when not in use for teaching.
9. One year from today, the government shall submit to the Parliament a report on electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
– Arthur Firstenberg, www.cellularphonetaskforce.org