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Who's afraid of 5G?

Is 5G a health hazard? Fake news vs potential harm

Isabela Alzuguir
Who's afraid of 5G?© 2020 Andrey Suslov/Shutterstock

Radiation, airwaves, and well-known fears

Radiation is a word that alarms many of us: the unmistakable sound of Geiger counters may immediately come to mind, accompanied by images of nuclear attacks and the trefoil symbol. Granted, baby boomers are likely to experience more intense nuclear anxiety, as such fears were firmly instilled into those born after the end of World War II and who grew up during the height of the Cold War. Still, younger generations are connected to those times via history education, pop culture, and fears related to present and future technology.

I, for instance, was born months after the Chernobyl tragedy, and I've always been somewhat obsessed with the ghost city of Pripyat – and of course, I've binge-watched HBO's critically acclaimed Chernobyl (2019). However, more than fearing nuclear warfare, it's the thought of day-to-day radiation that makes me most uncomfortable. Yet, some of our worries concerning the radio-frequency radiation (RFR) of mobile devices may be driven by a misreading, making it crucial to clarify that radiation doesn't necessarily imply radioactivity. Yes! Science!

As defined by the World Nuclear Association, radiation is simply "energy traveling through space," which may occur in the form of particles or waves. Even the warmth that comes from your skin is a type of radiation. Radioactivity, however, is a process of radioactive decay or rearrangement stemming from unstable atoms, and it's associated with ionizing radiation – the type capable of breaking chemical bonds and damaging DNA.

X-rays and higher-energy UV rays are forms of ionizing radiation. In contrast, visible light, infrared radiation, and the low-energy radio-frequency waves of FM radio and mobile data signal are non-ionizing. Although it is broadly accepted within the scientific community that non-ionizing radiation is not capable of causing this type of harm, some researchers are of a different opinion. Part of the general public also feels apprehensive, especially as a new generation of mobile technology is being rolled out: 5G.

5G: Promises and challenges

The fifth generation of mobile technology pledges to deliver connectivity improvements that might soon make 4G seem, in comparison, like the early days of the internet, when downloading a single song took a whole night (on a good day). Latency – data transfer delay, measured in milliseconds – is also expected to drop significantly, which will please gamers. This increased performance may also bring about changes to the transportation and medical industries, as 5G is foreseen to boost the adoption of self-driving cars, health monitoring, and remote diagnosis devices.

5G Industry Impact

Such enhanced conditions are achievable over a higher-frequency, millimeter-wave radio-frequency spectrum. These waves are propagated over considerably shorter distances, in comparison to previous technologies. Add the fact that radio-frequency signals cannot entirely penetrate physical obstacles such as walls and trees, and it's easy to understand that 5G requires more transmission masts (which are likely to be closer to ground level than current antennas).

5G band licenses are already being auctioned across the globe: the USA, China, South Korea, Germany, and the United Kingdom are a few of the countries where the technology is being introduced. As corporations rush to deploy the latest telecom tech, consumer electronics manufacturers are determined not to stay behind. The Huawei Nova 6 5G, Samsung Galaxy Fold 5G, Samsung Galaxy Note 10 5G and Note 10 Plus 5G, Huawei Mate 20 X 5G, and Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G are some of the 5G-ready smartphones already on the market.

Is weather forecasting in peril?

The electromagnetic spectrum seems to be going through a gentrification process of sorts: new players are coming in with billions of dollars to offer, and longtime residents are being pushed out. At least that's the impression that I got after learning about the impact that 5G is feared to have on weather forecasting, a (literally) vital sector in mitigating the effects of severe storms and other "natural" disasters (between quotation marks because: hello, climate emergency).

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Contemporary meteorological science strongly relies on water vapor analysis to provide accurate forecasts. Part of this information travels across the 23.8 GHz microwave band, a frequency dangerously close to the prime real estate being auctioned to 5G operators. This proximity is likely to lead to interferences that could critically jeopardize early warning systems for severe weather.

Representatives of over 160 nations and various trade groups attended the World Radiocommunication Conference 2019, which took place between October 28 and November 22 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. The conference engendered a set of international radio-frequency standards aimed at protecting critical electromagnetic spectrum bands for weather forecasting. The maximum amount of 5G transmission interference is now regulated, and rules will become stricter after September 2027.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialized United Nations agency with 193 member states and territories as of now, pushed for a buffer of -55 dBW (decibel watts; the lower the amount, the larger the buffer zone). Negotiations, however, resulted in a more modest buffer zone of -33 dBW (to be increased to -39 dBW in 2027). The number was a middle ground between what European legislators put forward (-42 dBW) and what the USA's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) pushed for: -20 dBW, the smallest degree of protection proposed.

The WMO remains disquieted, as expressed by the organization's Secretary-General Petteri Taalas after the decision. Taalas argues that the agreed buffer zone may considerably endanger data collection accuracy. The Secretary-General contends that potential effects of the compromise "could be felt across multiple impact areas including aviation, shipping, agricultural meteorology and warning of extreme events as well as our common ability to monitor climate change in the future."

Public health concerns

The increased quantity of telecommunications masts, their proximity to the population, as well as the technology's higher operating frequencies are distressing to plenty of citizens and organizations worldwide. Even though influential governmental agencies such as the FCC have stated that the new generation of mobile technology does not pose threats, many researchers are not on board with the 5G rollout – at least not until further research is completed.

5G Antennas

Although 5G gives rise to new challenges, concerns regarding the impact of ever-rising radio-frequency exposure are not new. Before examining what scientists say about the latest tech, let's take a look at longtime worries.

Previous mobile tech generations are not in the clear

We've been reliant on mobile devices for many years; yet, whether our smartphones are cause for concern is still unclear, and the scientific community is divided.

According to specialists, even though mobile phone radiation is non-ionizing in nature, devices could cause damage via a biological mechanism known as continued oxidative stress. This process has been proven to "lead to chronic inflammation, which in turn could mediate most chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular, neurological and pulmonary diseases."

In a 2017 interview, Martin Pall, professor emeritus of biochemistry and basic medical sciences at the Washington State University, asserts that "the industry has been claiming for at least 25 years that ionizing radiation is dangerous, but that non-ionizing radiation can't do anything (...) And it's been very clear, going back all the way to 1971 and even before that, that this wasn't true." Dr. Pall affirms that exposure to EMFs (electromagnetic fields) like the ones emitted by smartphones can cause a series of maladies, from infertility to cancer and Alzheimer's.

Not every scientist agrees with Dr. Pall, and many would accuse radio-frequency radiation detractors of scaremongering. Still, mobile device manufacturers around the world must follow guidelines to keep their products under the maximum SAR levels allowed by local powers. Standing for Specific Absorption Rate, SAR measures the highest rate at which the human body may absorb energy when exposed to the electromagnetic fields of radio-frequency.

Different SAR values for the same device are typically disclosed, as standardized testing varies between regions, resulting in distinct numbers for SAR EU and SAR US (to name the most popular SAR standards). Furthermore, the amount of energy that may be absorbed if a given device is held at head level differs from the energy that is likely to be soaked up if the same gadget is carried in a pocket, for instance. This is why separate values are given: namely SAR head and SAR body. SAR critics in the United States have pointed out that the limits adopted by the FCC are based on studies from the 1980s, and haven't been updated since 1996.

The US-American Food and Drug Administration agency (FDA) declares that "[t]he weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems." The agency does, however, concede that "[w]hile RF energy doesn't ionize particles, large amounts can increase body temperatures and cause tissue damage. Two areas of the body, the eyes and the testes, are particularly vulnerable to RF heating because there is relatively little blood flow in them to carry away excess heat."

Moreover, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified radio-frequency radiation as being possibly carcinogenic to humans in 2011. Although the classification is alarming, one should note that RFR shares a space in the 2B carcinogen group with 313 other agents. These include aloe vera and gasoline, diesel fuel, and "pickled vegetables (traditional Asian)" – a parenthetical remark that sounds problematic, but let's not get into it at this time. Even though the classification remains, the WHO also stated, in 2014, that "no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use."

A recent review article written by researchers from Australia, Canada, USA, and Sweden and published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Public Health delves deeply into these concerns. As articulated by the authors of Risks to Health and Well-Being From Radio-Frequency Radiation Emitted by Cell Phones, new adverse effects on human health have been reported since the 2011 study by the Agency for Research on Cancer that led to the WHO's classification. Furthermore, the review asserts that the effects of RFR exposure on children's brains are unsettling: "Compared with an adult male, a cell phone held against the head of a child exposes deeper brain structures to greater radiation doses per unit volume, and the young, thin skull's bone marrow absorbs a roughly 10-fold higher local dose."

Among numerous other scientific papers, the article cites a study on mobile phone antennas located next to school buildings. As per the Frontiers review, the research found that, in comparison with adolescents exposed to low radio-frequency radiation, a number of male students at the institution adjacent to the antennas suffered from delayed fine and gross motor skills, as well as issues with spatial working memory and attention.

Amid this already confusing scenario, comes 5G

Mobile technology is not going anywhere, but further examination would help the industry, as well as consumers, understand how to minimize the potential damage of radio-frequency radiation. Unfortunately, unscientific claims "gone viral" (and debunked) make it harder for the public to take substantiated findings seriously.

Let there be science

A few months ago, The New York Times published an article on an inaccurate chart that was hugely responsible for massive panic concerning wireless technology. Journalist William J. Broad investigated a report written by physicist Bill P. Curry as a consultant for Florida's Broward County Public Schools. According to the report, wireless technology is "likely to be a serious health hazard," as indicated by a graph that supposedly illustrates the amount of wireless signal radiation absorbed by the human brain. The chart (below) shows a disturbing, sharp spike as the slope goes through wireless frequencies. Broad states that "the blossoming anxiety over the professed health risks of 5G technology can be traced to a single scientist and a single chart."

Chart by Bill P. Curry, Ph.D.
Chart by Bill P. Curry, Ph.D.

The NYT's article proceeds to elucidate that Dr. Curry's graph overlooks the shielding effect of human skin, solely sharing results from radio-frequency radiation as observed in an isolated lab environment. Despite its inaccurate findings, Dr. Curry's report was disseminated by conspiracy theories websites. Other scientists with impressive credentials had access to Dr. Curry's work; one of them, Dr. David O. Carpenter, had been previously involved with controversy when trying to rewrite established science. As revealed by The New York Times, "[i]n late 2011, Dr. Carpenter introduced Dr. Curry's graph in a lawsuit that sought to force the Portland [Oregon, USA] public schools to abandon their wireless computer networks." The case was dismissed, as regulatory matters fall under federal jurisdiction.

Afterward, Dr. Carpenter saw a new threat in the deployment of 4G technology, which led him to write a report that was discredited by mainstream scientists. As wireless technology is ever-evolving, Dr. Carpenter moved on to publicize his concerns about 5G. He was interviewed by RT America, the US arm of a Russian network. RT America ran several segments on the dangers of 5G. Countless other media outlets were also – and still are – actively engaged in making the public aware of the "dangers of 5G," and the issue is that the information divulged is typically based on unscientific claims instead of reputable, peer-reviewed research.

The NYT article also mentions later statements by Dr. Carpenter, in which his position seems shaken. The scientist now agrees that there is "some legitimacy" to the notion that radio-frequency radiation must face tissue barriers before entering the human body and that, if the human skin indeed blocks 5G signals, "maybe it's not that big a deal." In fact, the review article published in Frontiers contends that "[h]igher frequency (shorter wavelength) radiation associated with 5G does not penetrate the body as deeply as frequencies from older technologies although its effects may be systemic." Dr. Carpenter has, since the controversy, declared that he no longer follows the mobile technology industry.

Newspaper on Fire

Anti-5G online communities and activists gained even more fuel for the cause thanks to a viral blog post claiming that the death of 300 birds occurred shortly after a 5G test in the Netherlands. According to fact-checking platform Snopes, birds did, indeed, die in The Hague's Huijgenspark; however, as maintained by wildlife specialists, such incidents are (unfortunately) common. A 5G test had taken place approximately 4 km away from the park for one day, but that happened months before the birds' deaths. Snopes states that the blog article was motivated by a Facebook post by someone named John Kuhles, who wrote another social media rant on the matter after authorities denied that 5G tests had been conducted within the park's area:

Some think there is "no 5G" in Den Haag. That is a lie (or mis-perception) the so called "conclusions" of some (pseudo)-skeptics. Some "Authorities" claim a lot and is parroted by lesser authorities and beLIEved by the masses … it is a system of beLIEfs, false assumptions copy catted … That problem is with almost all controversial topics, nothing new … most ppl just love to be told "what is"… My 5G conclusions are assertions/conjecture with a QUESTION mark!

As our civilization keeps proving, fake news and terror are tremendous opportunities for profit and for power to be seized – just consider the arms industry and recent elections that brought right-wing figures to power around the globe. Public consternation around radio-frequency radiation has caused a niche industry to emerge: cases, stickers, and covers that pledge to shield the user from device radiation. The FDA has refuted the efficacy of such products.

What mainstream science says

The mainstream scientific community accuses activists and scientists such as Dr. Pall and Dr. Carpenter of cherry-picking study fragments to support their anti-5G views while ignoring scientific findings that steer toward the opposite direction. An example of such cherry-picking comes from a survey by the National Toxicology Program, run by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Although the studies have associated high RFR exposure to heart, brain, and adrenal gland tumors in male rats, the NTP asserts that the findings cannot be directly applied to humans. Oddly enough, the inter-agency program also observed that the exposed male rats had longer-than-usual lifespans. Moreover, critics contend that the tumors could be due to chance.

According to the American Cancer Society, "the RF waves given off by cell phones don't have enough energy to damage DNA directly or to heat body tissues." The voluntary health organization also voices that "[m]ost studies done in the lab have supported the idea that RF waves do not cause DNA damage." Yet, "most studies" does not equal certainty, and the organization reckons that definitive answers may, at this time, be problematic. It mentions research that has found no link between cell phone usage and illness such as cancer but also calls attention to a study limitation: tumors formed after exposure to carcinogens may take decades to develop, and subjects are rarely followed for that long. As cell phones haven't been widespread for many decades, future health effects can't be ruled out.

In a recent interview, physician and epidemiologist Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, stated that "[t]here is some evidence from epidemiological studies and other research on the biological effects that electromagnetic radiation could cause cancer." Samet also reminded the public that it is still too early for a definite answer – as declared by him, it took 20 to 25 years after the mass production of cigarettes for the connection between lung cancer and smoking to be noticed.

In early 2018, scientific journal Nature published an interesting study on insect exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields between the range of 2 and 120 GHz. This was the first paper to examine the absorption rate of millimeter-wavelength radio-frequencies associated with 5G communication. Four species of insects were observed: the Australian stingless bee, the Western honeybee, the desert locust, and the beetle (Geotrupes Stercorarius). The study has found that "the absorbed power in insects is expected to increase in unchanged environmental conditions with respect to the one of current wireless communication systems (3 G and 4 G)." What this increased absorption will eventually result in, and whether the conclusion would be the same with larger animal species (including ours), is yet to be known.

The previously discussed Frontiers article reminds the scientific community that "[n]ovel 5G technology is being rolled out in several densely populated cities, although potential chronic health or environmental impacts have not been evaluated and are not being followed." Researchers add that the "range and magnitude of potential impacts of 5G technologies are under-researched, although important biological outcomes have been reported with millimeter wavelength exposure. These include oxidative stress and altered gene expression, effects on skin and systemic effects such as on immune function."

The scientists responsible for this peer-reviewed paper posit that a lack of epidemiological evidence in previous studies does not equal absence of effect, and call for surveys "based upon large numbers of participants with sufficient latency and intensity of exposure to specific technologies." The review also urges governments to "investigate short-term impacts such as insomnia, memory, reaction time, hearing and vision, especially those that can occur in children and adolescents, whose use of wireless devices has grown exponentially within the past few years."

Additionally, the authors emphasize the need for public awareness regarding health risks possibly associated with mobile devices. They call for further consumer protection measures on packaging and sales points, with mandatory labeling as currently done in many countries for tobacco and alcohol (carcinogenic agents). In some places, local authorities are seeking to bring the 5G rollout to a halt, despite the eagerness of some parliament authorities to proceed with auctions. As reported by Bruzz, the Minister for the Environment in Brussels, Alain Maron, declared that he "will not take any further steps in this matter as long as Brussels Environment cannot offer me the necessary technical guarantees."

Dr. Lennart Hardell, a Swedish oncologist and professor, joins this call for thorough research and awareness. In an article published by the peer-reviewed International Journal of Oncology in 2017, he speaks of industry interests that may prevent health agencies and organizations from promoting additional research and fostering awareness on the possible health hazards of radio-frequency radiation. "Sowing confusion and manufacturing doubt about scientific facts is a well-known strategy used by the tobacco and other industries," he writes, adding that "[i]ronically enough, whether knowingly or not, the WHO [World Health Organization] staff seems to protect themselves from high involuntary RF radiation levels at least in the measured areas within the Geneva building."

Our conclusion on this very inconclusive matter

In a time in which political scenarios are easily being swayed by data-based audience manipulation, fake news, and pseudoscience, developing and exercising critical thinking and awareness is more crucial than ever. Our first recommendation in this sense seems obvious, but it's hard to practice it at all times: don't immediately believe everything you read, hear, or watch. Always verify sources – and hey, that also counts for this article you've just read!

When it comes to 5G, there's been obvious scaremongering and attempts at manipulating public opinion. Nonetheless, there are also incalculable financial interests at stake, which may explain why the latest telecommunications tech is being deployed before comprehensive and unbiased studies are completed (or funded at all).

With that in mind, concerned parties do have a point when asking authorities to bring 5G to a halt until it can be proven safe – after all, how many products have been believed to be safe in the past, and ended up being potent carcinogens? Again, think of cigarettes and alcohol.

Still, proving 5G to be unquestionably safe may never happen, or this may be decades away. After all, possible harmful effects of previous wireless generations are still being debated, and as technologies evolve at a rapid pace, anything that is currently being studied may soon become obsolete. We may as well have no answer on 5G, but our world will likely keep moving toward even more advanced communications tech.

In all likelihood, if you live in a city, 5G antennas will be installed close to your home. Although there is yet to be a consensus on whether this would pose a threat, you may want to put your phone away from your sleeping area at night or switch it off completely. Although we can't say whether this will protect your body from radio-frequency radiation (and if RFR is even truly dangerous), the benefits in terms of anxiety reduction and general mental health are unquestionable. Whichever the verdict on RFRs proves to be, I like to think of this as a win-win (and personally tested) strategy.

One final thing: I may still be on the fence regarding 5G, but don't ever try to sell me on flat Earth and anti-vaccination talks. Deal?

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