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5G dangers: discover the fact and the fiction

5G dangers.
(Image credit: EBU)

5G dangers are a concern for many – whether they're brought on by health concerns, or issues with security – and in this post we review the different 5G dangers as they hit the news.

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?

Concern surrounding 5G dangers

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”.

5G dangers.

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 explicit 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.

Are there 5G dangers from 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.

Could 5G dangers be a 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. 

5G dangers: 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." 

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.”  

Australian experts review 138 studies

In March 2021 a review of 138 studies was carried out by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) and Swinburne University of Technology, which found no evidence of adverse health effects from the radio waves used in 5G.

“In conclusion, a review of all the studies provided no substantiated evidence that low-level radio waves, like those used by the 5G network, are hazardous to human health,” said Dr Ken Karipidis, assistant director of assessment and advice at ARPANSA.

The research review, which included 107 experimental studies, looked into the potential effects of 5G technology, finding no significant evidence of a health risk.

According to ARPANSA, the findings of these reviews remain “consistent with national and international radiation health and safety guidelines”, which have already deemed that low-level 5G radio waves are safe for public exposure. However, it did recommend that the quality of the research it reviewed varied, and that future experiments into 5G dangers should be improved upon.

Landowners are warned about 5G masts

Landowners in the UK have been warned to be wary of having 5G towers on their land. 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. 

Deloitte report debunks dangers

A report from Deloitte – titled Technology, Media, and Telecommunications Predictions 2021 – has focussed specifically on perceived 5G dangers, having discovered in 2020 that up to one fifth of people in ‘advanced economies’ believe 5G comes with associated health risks.

"Between 10% and 20% adults in many advanced economies will mistakenly equate 5G with possible harm to their health."

Deloitte TMT 2021 report.

“Unfortunately, while extensive scientific evidence  proves that mobile phone technologies have no adverse health impacts, not just for 5G but also earlier generations, we also predict that between 10% and 20% adults in many advanced economies will mistakenly equate 5G with possible harm to their health,” the report explained. “A Deloitte consumer poll in May  2020 found a fifth or more adults in six out of 14 countries surveyed agreed with the statement: “I believe there are health risks associated with 5G”.”

According to the report, as 5G has become more widespread, there has been a growing concern about its supposed health hazards.

Deloitte says that, based on numerous studies, both of these fears are “grossly overblown”. And the research company predicts that in 2021, it is “very unlikely” that the radiation from 5G networks and 5G phones will affect the health of a single individual.

"5G does generate radiation, but at very safe levels, and none of it is radioactive radiation."

Deloitte TMT 2021 report.

“5G does generate radiation, but at very safe levels, and none of it is radioactive radiation,” the report explained. “5G base stations and phones, and the frequency ranges within which 5G operates, are very likely to be operating well within safe parameters in 2021 and throughout 5G’s lifetime.”

Deloitte also points out that mobile phone technology, including the 5G standard, is based on the same underlying  transmission methods that have been used for decades.

“Content is created, relayed over radio waves, and received – a technique that has been delivering content wirelessly for more than 100 years,” said the report. “5G has been designed to use less power than previous generations to reduce operational costs. 5G also incorporates a technique known as  beamforming … [Beamforming] not only enables higher connection speeds, but also leads to lower radio wave exposure than prior network generations.”

Taking all this into consideration, Deloitte is hoping to quell any remaining fears that people may have over the adoption of 5G technology, but with conspiracy theories continuing to spread across social media, it may be years before concerns drop to expected levels.

“It may not be possible to persuade everyone that 5G is safe,” Deloitte concluded. “There is likely to be a niche – perhaps less than 1% of the population – that will remain convinced not just that wireless technologies are harmful.”

Are drones flying over California a 5G danger?

Other health concerns have come from more unexpected sources, such as 5G 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.”

Is there a concern about 5G security?

5G dangers come in many forms, and its clear that governments are concerned about the security of 5G, and the impact on data sharing down the line, dictated by the choices they're making now.

In October 2019, the AT&T Cybersecurity Insights Report in the US suggested that businesses aren’t yet ready for 5G. While nearly all of the 704 respondents expected to make 5G-related security changes within the next five years, only 16 percent had started preparing.

Participants were also concerned about the greater potential for attacks as well as the increased number of devices accessing the network.

These reports highlight why it is important to not be under the illusion that, although operators have begun going live with the next-generation network, we are not achieving the full breadth of what 5G has to offer. We still have a long way to go. Achieving its full potential is not a simple case of out with the old and in with the new.  

Will IoT open up new 5G dangers? 

Security challenges can also stem from the need for 5G networks to support a massive number of connected devices. Gartner predicts a huge growth in adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT). With 25 billion IoT devices expected to be connected by 2021, its implementation is set to unleash a highly complex threat landscape, significantly different from previous networks.

As it becomes more widespread, the IoT phenomenon continues to expose more vulnerabilities and security challenges. Device protection is poor - many manufacturers build in only the most basic security provisions from the outset - and malware distribution is easily scalable. Our researchers found that the number of malware campaigns targeting IoT devices grew by an incredible 50 per cent over the last year, during which time we identified more than 1,100,000 vulnerable devices.

The massive DDoS attack carried out by the Mirai botnet which, in 2016, left much of the internet inaccessible on the US east coast, serves as an example of the large-scale damage that can result from exploiting such devices. And to avoid a repeat of such an attack, in which regular users can be left without communication, 5G network operators will have to develop new threat mitigation models more attuned to diverse types of devices. 

Despite fears, 5G will improve health and safety

In the health sector, 5G will enable remote diagnosis and operations, as well as e-health and responsive wearables, and AI assistants might help people with disabilities. Companies such as the interactive physiotherapy specialist Immersive Rehab are already looking at how 5G can improve their offering, and 5G is being used in various trials such as the Liverpool 5G Testbed. And 5G has even made its way into the operating theatre, when Telefónica, with the help of a hospital in Malaga, presented the first assistance system for surgery, that runs entirely on 5G technology. Elsewhere, O2 has developed a deal with Samsung and the NHS to test out “smart ambulances” equipped with 5G.

Beyond healthcare, 5G will enable safer working environments, via technologies like 'digital twin'. Digital twin technology, as it sounds, enables you to create a digital version of a physical object or environment, which can then be interacted with remotely. This could entail the virtual recreation of a work space, where people could train safely using VR equipment, or help highlight when certain workspaces might become dangerous to work in.

Another area where 5G is certain to save lives is in the realm of autonomous vehicles, where sensors will be used to detect pedestrians and dangerous incidents, enabling AI-driven vehicles to avoid them. 

Telstra

(Image credit: Telstra)

And on the other side of the windscreen, cyclists are also likely to benefit, as evidenced by Australian company Telstra, which has partnered with Australian cycling start-up, Arenberg, to create a 5G-enabled helmet that can see around corners. The helmet prototype features a 5G connection, which passes video, GPS and other data up to a data processing and analytics cloud, as well as Telstra’s V2X program, which gathers data from connected cars on the roads.

And so, despite all the fake news, conspiracy theories, and unfounded claims surrounding 5G dangers, the reality is that the next generation of mobile communications will actually save and protect lives, not take them.

Dan Oliver

Dan is a British journalist with 20 years of experience in the design and tech sectors, producing content for the likes of Microsoft, Adobe, Dell and The Sunday Times. In 2012 he helped launch the world's number one design blog, Creative Bloq. Dan is now editor-in-chief at 5Gradar, where he oversees news, insight and reviews, providing an invaluable resource for anyone looking to stay up-to-date with the key issues facing 5G.