5G and Health

New Zealand’s mobile networks are fully compliant with international and national safety guidelines that are based on decades of scientific research.

5G networks will also be built to comply with applicable statutory, expert and industry guidelines and standards. If you’re happy to use mobile services on 3G or 4G today, then you should be equally comfortable with using 5G.

How safety standards are set

New Zealand’s safety standards are based on international guidelines that reflect decades of scientific research, are endorsed by the Ministry of Health and are implemented through regulations under the Resource Management Act.

Frequently asked questions

What are the exposure limits for mobile networks in New Zealand?

  • New Zealand mobile network owners design all of their networks to comply with the National Environmental Standards for Telecommunication Facilities (NESTF) 2016, which are regulations made under the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA).
  • The NESTF reflect New Zealand radiofrequency field exposure Standard NZS 2772.1:1999, which is endorsed by the New Zealand Ministry of Health.
  • Public exposures are set at levels more than 50 times lower than the recognised threshold for established effects.

How are New Zealand’s standards for mobile communications set?

  • The New Zealand radiofrequency field exposure Standard (NZS 2772.1:1999) is based on recommendations from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Protection (ICNIRP), a scientific body that independently monitors the research and provides international guidelines on exposure limits to human health.
  • The ICNIRP is recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for its independence and expertise in this area.
  • The New Zealand Standard is endorsed by the Ministry of Health.

What monitoring of cellsites takes place?

  • Spark and Vodafone have commissioned independent monitoring of exposures to radiofrequency fields around their cellsites.
  • The companies are not informed when the monitoring will take place, and generally have no say in the sites selected for monitoring (although Spark may request monitoring of specific sites).
  • The purpose of the tests is to evaluate exposures to radiofrequency fields near cellsites to determine the maximum exposure at the time the measurements were made, and the maximum possible exposure should all the equipment at the site (and any other transmitters nearby) operate at full power.
  • These monitoring reports are published on the Ministry of Health website.

How up to date are the international guidelines and do they take account of 5G?

  • The international guidelines are very up to date and do apply to frequencies being used for 5G. In March 2020, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Protection (ICNIRP) released new guidelines that updated its earlier 1998 guidelines.
  • This followed a thorough seven-year review of all relevant scientific literature, scientific workshops and an extensive public consultation process. The review found that the previous guidelines were conservative in most cases and still provide adequate protection for current technologies.

Are all these international guidelines applied in New Zealand?

  • To keep up to date with developments, the Ministry of Health convenes every six months an expert advisory committee, known as the Interagency Committee on the Health Effects of Non-Ionising Fields, to review new research in this area.
  • The Committee is currently considering how the latest ICNIRP guidelines might be incorporated into a revised New Zealand Standard. It will then advise the Ministry of Health on its recommended approach.

What about the risk from “millimetre wave” frequencies that some 5G services may use in future?

  • 5G is also designed to operate on higher frequencies above 10GHz, in what are sometimes called “millimetre wave” (mm wave) frequencies.
  • The updated (March 2020) guidelines from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Protection (ICNIRP) have been updated to take account of exposure levels for these mm wave frequencies.
  • The INCIRP says “5G technologies will not be able to cause harm when these new guidelines are adhered to.”
  • These mm wave frequencies are not being used in New Zealand currently for 5G services.

Note: The higher the frequency of radio wave transmissions, the shorter the length of each wave. At frequencies above 10GHz, the waves are millimetres in length or smaller.

Could radiofrequency radiation be associated with cancer?

  • As cancer is one of the leading causes of death, a huge amount of research goes into trying to understand how to minimise the risk factors for developing the disease. For any individual, it is impossible to tell for sure what caused their cancer but, for populations as a whole, some exposures have strong connections – e.g. tobacco smoking and lung cancer.
  • Many researchers have explored possible connections between radio frequency radiation and cancer. As is often the case when there are many separate studies, a small number have reported an association between exposure and cancer. These studies are in the minority and significantly more high-quality studies have found no associations.
  • The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor states: “The clear conclusion reached internationally, supported by health authorities in New Zealand, is that exposure to this type of radiation at levels experienced in New Zealand is not hazardous.”

Why is radiofrequency radiation classified as a “possible human carcinogen”?

  • Because individuals are exposed to many, many different things during a lifetime, there are many substances (classified as “known”, “probable” or “possible” human carcinogens) that are monitored by agencies.
  • Radiofrequency radiation was classified as a “possible” human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2011. This category catches many commonly encountered things, such as pickles and dry cleaning, and represents a lower hazard rating.
  • To put this in perspective, even the classification above this, “probable” human carcinogens, includes widely encountered activities including drinking very hot drinks and working night shifts.
  • The IARC classification is based on studies on exposure of people to radiation from handsets, not cell towers, and the associations found in the studies are not clear-cut. The IARC highlights possible hazardous substances but does not look at likely exposures there will be to that hazard, so the rankings err on the side of caution.
  • The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor states: “The currently available scientific evidence makes it extremely unlikely that there will be any adverse effects on human or environmental health from radiofrequency. However, an association between radiofrequency and cancer cannot be completely ruled out and this is why the exposure standards are so precautionary.”