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5G dangers: discover the fact and the fiction

5G dangers
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Complete guide to 5G

(Image credit: Future)

5G technology: how it works
4G vs 5G: how they compare
5G use cases: examples of 5G
5G Internet: will it replace fibre
5G security: the full picture
5G speed: guide and tools
5G deals: get the best offers
5G phones: discover the best
5G networks: in the US and UK
5G stocks: investment tips

5G dangers are a concern for many and we'll be updating this feature as advice on 5G evolves and more stories come to light of community concern about 5G - we're tracking the latest news on the situation at the bottom of this article. 

5G technology - promising high speeds, lower latency, and the activation of the Internet of Things (IoT) - is still hugely controversial.  Citizen groups and some scientists argue that radio frequency (RF) energy exposure - particularly the high-frequency part of the spectrum used by 5G – is dangerous to people and the environment.

But it's worth stating that many credible scientific bodies, journalists, and technology experts are exasperated by any claims arguing that the science just doesn’t stand up. And that's before you get to the information from many networks operators that say the situation is overblown and dangers are limited or non-existent. 

"Twenty years of research should reassure people there are no established health risks from their mobile devices or 5G antennas," says GSMA chief regulatory officer John Giusti.

Can industry bodies and scientists be right when so many parties are worried, and, if so, how did fears about 5G become so prevalent?

 The dangers of 5G

5G networks employ low (0.6 GHz – 3.7 GHz), mid (3.7 – 24 GHz), and high-band frequencies (24 GHz and higher) to deliver their services. Speaking generally, it is the high band frequencies that have caused most concern, although ongoing worries about 2G, 3G and 4G, which use the low and mid part of the range, have not subsided. 

Concerns around 5G fall into two categories: first, that the millimeter wave (MMW) spectrum used by 5G and transmitted via the 30-300 Ghz part of the spectrum, are more likely to cause cellular damage than lower frequency waves. Second, these short waves do not travel far meaning more small cell transmitters are required to provide full coverage - the number of transmitters needed is worrying some groups. 

Impact of MMW on cells

One concern about MMWs is that because they lie between microwaves and infrared waves on the RF spectrum, they pose heating dangers. Some argue that this will cause cell breakdown. 

And some studies seem to show that MMW exposure may affect cell structure. A blog by Joel Moskowitz, director of the centre for family and community health, University of Berkeley, argues that MMWs can affect the cell’s plasma membrane, either by modifying ion channel activity or by modifying the phospholipid bilayer. He says: “Skin nerve endings are a likely target of MMWs and the possible starting point of numerous biological effects”.

Some scientists argue that exposure to MMWs may affect the cell’s plasma membrane.

Some scientists argue that exposure to MMWs may affect the cell’s plasma membrane. (Image credit: Pixabay)

However, many scientists argue that 5G radiation (the  RF sort emitted by a 5G infrastructure) simply can’t harm human cells this way. 

On the American Council for Science and Health site, Alex Berezow quotes astrophysicist Dr. Ethan Siegel when attempting to explain how to determine whether a source of radiation is dangerous. Siegel argues that there are three considerations: the energy per photon, the total amount of energy, and the ability of the exposed object to absorb the radiation. 

He argues that the photons associated with the radio spectrum are too weak to cause cancer; the total amount of energy to which our bodies are exposed by RF radiation is low; and that our bodies don’t absorb it well anyway.

In March 2020 it was announced that the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has formally deemed 5G to be safe as a result of extensive research. The body says there is “no evidence” 5G networks have the potential to cause cancer or other illnesses. 

The research considered other types of effects, such as the potential development of cancer in the human body as a result of exposure to radio waves. 

“We know parts of the community are concerned about the safety of 5G, and we hope the updated guidelines will help put people at ease," said Dr Eric van Rongen, chairman of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).

“We find that the scientific evidence for that is not enough to conclude that indeed there is such an effect,” concluded van Rongen. 

The ICNIRP has spent the last seven years working on new guidance for the mobile industry and, while 5G networks were within existing 1998 guidelines, they weren't explcit about high-frequencies above 6GHz, so this has been clarified. 

"They provide protection against all scientifically substantiated adverse health effects due to EMF exposure in the 100 kHz to 300 GHz range," says the ICNIRP.

And in the UK the telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has carried out the UK’s first safety tests on 5G base stations and has found no identifiable risks since 5G technology was deployed and that radiation levels are at ‘tiny fractions’ of safe limits.

Measuring 16 5G sites in 10 towns and cities across the UK, the regulator focused on areas where mobile use is likely to be highest. At every site, Ofcom found emissions were a small fraction of the levels included in international guidelines, as set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. Non-ionizing refers to the type that doesn’t damage DNA and cells. The maximum measured at any site was 1.5% of those levels.

Despite these findings, though, it has been announced that new guidelines will be introduced to increase protection for emerging 5G technology, which operates on higher frequencies. This is significant, as it’s the first time since 1988 that guidelines protecting humans from mobile radiation have been updated. But the new rules won’t apply to 5G phone masts, focussing specifically on 5G phones and devices.

Sadly, none of this news is likely to stop the growing number of protest groups that believe 5G technology is potentially dangerous. And the fact that the research stated that 5G radiation did “slightly heat human body tissue” – although with no evidence of harm – is bound to be used out of context by those people already convinced of 5G dangers.

5G radiation

"At this point, it is unclear exactly whether, or to what degree, human exposure to RF will change with 5G."

NIEHS spokesperson.

Despite all of the current evidence to the contrary, though, there are still some scientists that are sceptical of the quality of research into the harmful impact of 5G. 

Kenneth R Foster, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania is one. In a recent Scientific American blog he said: “many of the studies [around the harmful effects of RF and 5G] are exploratory in nature, and lack elementary precautions to ensure reliable results.”

A more balanced approach towards whether 5G will cause harm is given by bodies such as the US-based National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). A spokesperson for the group said that they don’t yet know what the impact of exposure to RF will be on biological tissues, and that the range of frequencies utilised by 5G complicates issues further. 

She added: “We do know that absorption of RF at higher frequencies differs significantly from absorption at lower frequencies in that shorter wavelengths cannot penetrate nearly as deep into the body.  This means that much of the higher frequency absorption occurs in the skin and would not penetrate deep enough to reach the heart, brain, or adrenal glands.” 

She continued: “At this point, it is unclear exactly whether, or to what degree, human exposure to RF will change with 5G. What is known, however, is that while continuing to be exposed to the current frequencies, wireless consumers will be exposed to the higher frequencies as well.” 

In a 2018 review, the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority was similarly circumspect. It argued that although there is no established mechanism for affecting health with weak radio wave exposure there is need for more research covering the novel frequency domains used for 5G.

Critics of 5G often cite a 2011 study by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer which classified RF radiation as "possibly carcinogenic to humans". However, to put this into perspective, the agency also categorised 5G alongside using talcum powder and eating pickled vegetables.

And in a later report in 2014, the World Health Organization explicitly stated that "no adverse health effects" occurred from the use of mobile phones.

5G cancer risk

One way that many scientists attempt to understand the harmful consequences of 5G radiation is by considering its properties. High-energy radiation (including x-rays and gamma rays) has an ionizing impact. 

This means it has enough energy to remove an electron from an atom or molecule and can damage cell DNA, potentially leading to cancer. However, according to Professor Rodney Croft, adviser to the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) there is no 5G cancer risk, as the levels of MMW used for 5G (and earlier mobile technologies) are so low that the heating effects are not harmful. 

MMWs lie between microwaves and infrared waves on the RF spectrum

MMWs lie between microwaves and infrared waves on the RF spectrum (Image credit: Future)

David Robert Grimes, physicist and cancer researcher argues similarly: “The radio wave band used for mobile phone networks is non-ionising, meaning it lacks sufficient energy to break apart DNA and cause cellular damage." 

 Small cell transmitters

The second major 5G concern is the density of the small cell infrastructure. Increased proximity to these cells versus 4G transmitters is inevitable since they will be mounted on street signs and in buildings.

However, a spokesperson for the US-based National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences explained that RF exposure might actually be lower with 5G. She said: “the proximity of humans to cells may increase, potentially leading to higher exposure but the antennas will be widely dispersed meaning the RF given off by 5G may be lower than that currently transmitted by 2G, 3G, and 4G.”  

5G conspiracy theories abound

Conspiracy theories around 5G range from the half plausible to the utterly bizarre and they have grown in popularity in recent years. 

One fairly widespread theory, propagated by writers such as Mark Steele in his book, 5G Apocalypse: The Extinction Event, is that the 5G rollout will be used as a weapon to reduce the population. Some members of the alt right argue that there is evidence that Google is involved in the plans to build a nationalised 5G network in a bid to monitor and control the population. 

Martin Pall, retired professor of biochemistry and basic medical sciences at Washington State University is one of the most widely quoted critics of 5G and although he is not a conspiracy theorist exactly, his claims are extreme.  He argues that 5G will cause an “almost instantaneous crash in human reproduction” as well as insomnia, fatigue, depression, anxiety, major changes in brain structure in animals, cellular DNA damage, oxidative stress, hormonal disruption and cancer. That MMWs transmit at a non-ionising radiation frequency helps counter these claims. 

Another vocal critic of 5G is a Dutch UFO researcher John Kuhles, founder of the ‘Stop5G’ Facebook group. Last year the group propagated the idea that the mysterious death of 300 birds in the Netherlands was the result of 5G testing. The claim collapsed when journalists reported that the test had actually taken place months earlier. 

 Is 5G dangerous?

The volume of research on 5G make it difficult to sort good research from bad and understand whether the technology is harmful or not. It is particularly difficult when social media encourages people to share the most ‘interesting’ and potentially alarming stories. 

Although there is little in the science that gives real cause for concern, the frequency domains used by 5G are novel and, as the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority says, require additional research. Either way it is important that the more balanced reports reach ordinary people and help to ease their concerns. 

Brighton council reject 'precautionary principle' 

Where several other UK councils have invoked the so-called 'precautionary principle' - see below - Brighton and Hove City Council in the UK have rejected it. The council had received a petition from 2,240 people concerned about the rollout of 5G in the area. 

However, the council said they would be following the advice given by Public Health England - namely that radiation levels needed to be within certain limits set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation (ICNIRP). These exact levels depend on mast height and power.

Brighton and Hove Council's director of public health Alistair Hill told a meeting at the end of January that the council would keep itself up-to-date with the latest research. 

"We absolutely recognise there is concern among some of our residents about this," he said.

Anti-5G protest takes place in Bristol

An anti-5G protest took place in Bristol, UK in January. 5G has already been rolled out by EE and Vodafone in Bristol yet more than 4,000 people signed a petition sent to Bristol City Council in 2019. 

The concerns of the public were debated by the Council but, according to website Bristol Live the campaigners behind the petition were called "naive people who had been taken in by malicious misinformation" by Labour councillor Tom Brook.

He added "I am dismayed it is this topic we are discussing because these concerns are scientifically unfounded and those that have brought this petition have been misled and are in turn sadly misleading others."

As you may know, Public Health England (PHE) says there will be no impact on health by 5G. The official information now says:

"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."

Landowners warned about masts

Landowners have been warned to be wary of having 5G masts on their land in the UK. That's because 'radiation exclusion zones' around masts are bigger than those for 4G. The Central Association of Agricultural Valuers (CAAV) is, however, careful to point out that these exclusion zones - set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation (ICNIRP) - are mandatory and standard depending on mast height and power. 

However, operators are only required to confirm the mast will comply with International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation (ICNIRP) guidelines and do not have to disclose the boundaries - therefore, says the CAAV, landowners should check to ensure they know the area involved as it could affect things like future building plans or other factors. 

More UK councils wary of 5G

Yet another council in the South West has invoked the 'precautionary principle', essentially saying that 5G is unwanted in their area - for now. 

Wellington, near Taunton in Somerset has joined Glastonbury, Frome, Shepton Mallet and Devon towns Totnes (see below) and Kingsbridge in voting for the principle. The councillors in Wellington bemoaned the lack of independent testing of 5G (independent testing that they'd seen, at any rate). 

According to the Wellington Weekly News, "Cllr Mark Lithgow said he was cautious [about 5G] because there did not seem to be any independent research into 5G technology. He said it seemed people 'didn’t like it without knowing what they actually didn’t like'".

According to the report, Cllr John Thorne said: “We don’t know how many masts are going to be put up here and I don’t share the concerns that 5G is going to kill us all.”

Although he added: “There is nothing scientifically to say that is nothing wrong with it and there hasn’t been any independent testing.”

Like other councils, Wellington Town Council were split on the issue but voted for the precautionary principle on a majority verdict. The council also "voted unanimously in writing to the Government with their concerns about 5G technology".

(Image credit: Google Maps)

Councillor concerned over 'monster' mast

One UK councillor in the Midlands says a "monster mast is totally unacceptable for [the] local area" after Three and EE applied for permission to install a new 5G mast. 

MBNL - a joint network venture between EE and Three - said that, “we cannot escape from the requirement that new structures, antennas and ancillary equipment will be needed [for 5G].”

However, the mast is in quite an exposed location on a junction (above), hence the note from Sutton Vesey councillor Rob Pocock. The councillor has written an open letter criticising the mast. Councils have limited powers to reject applications for phone masts simply because they are key for communications. 

Read the full story...

Petition targets 5G rollout in Devon

And it's not just councillors who are concerned about 5G. In the small Devon town of Totnes local campaigners have launched a petition claiming that the 5G masts pose a serious health hazard.

Almost 400 Totnes residents have signed the petition for more safety research on 5G, and it’ll be interesting to see what decision the town comes to.

There has never been any solid evidence to either confirm or allay health concerns around 5G, which is exactly why residents are campaigning; they want further research to be carried out before the masts are installed. 

And all this, despite the fact that Telecom companies, Public Health England, and the WHO have all said that 5G has no adverse effects on human health.

5G Google drones flying over Cali

Other health concerns have come from more unexpected sources, such as drones being flown in the skies over California. 

The HAWK30 is a solar-powered 5G drone – also known as a high-altitude pseudo-satellite (HAPS) – currently being tested as a way to provide 5G to remote areas. Flying non-stop for six months at a time, these drones beam 5G back to Earth. 

However, local tensions have been heightened, following health scares surrounding 5G dangers. And a campaign is building to ground the project, amidst fears that it may cause harm to the local community of Lana’i

Elsewhere, concern about 5G drones focusses on the fact that they may interfere with existing flight paths, or simply fall out of the sky in highly populated areas, causing injury or damage. However, a number of companies are working systems known as 'sky corridors', which will be vital if 5G drones become mainstream.

Lessening the 5G dangers of drones

Vodafone and Ericsson have successfully tested safe sky corridors for drones at Vodafone’s 5G Mobility Lab in Aldenhoven, Germany, as the two companies move a step closer to enabling real-world use cases for 5G drones.

In a proof of concept trial, which was recently conducted at Vodafone’s 5G Mobility Lab in Aldenhoven, Germany, Ericsson and Vodafone used data intelligence to produce coverage maps, which meant that drones could be operated safely, avoiding other objects, so long as they retained a connection to the network.

“The mobile network is a data-rich asset that can be responsibly and securely utilised to aid society,” said Vodafone Group’s CTO Johan Wibergh. “We are evolving our software-driven, intelligent network into a powerful platform that can deliver new digital services. The responsible use of drones is just one such example but there will be many more.”

Nicola Brittain is a freelance journalist with expertise in technology, telecoms, media and finance. She worked as news and analysis editor at Computing Magazine, and more recently has freelanced for Diginomica, Investment Week and Portfolio Adviser. She is currently writing a novel.