Internet access is a tremendous civilizing and democratizing tool. At the same time, it can be a polarizing one, especially in regard to one of the latest internet technologies: 5G. Many rumors and questions surround the technology, including people asking “does 5G cause radiation?”
Every meaningful technological innovation in humanity’s history has met at least some mistrust and pushback. In that sense, 5G is just the latest in a line of suspicion around innovation. Here’s a closer look at 5G myths and the truth surrounding the technology.
What Is 5G?
Briefly, for those who may not know: 5G is the fifth generation of mobile internet connectivity, promising faster speeds and better connections. In the first quarter of 2021, 57% of new smartphone sales were 5G phones. In the third quarter of 2020, the figure was just 14%. Big business is expected to have pumped up the industrial 5G market to $113 billion by 2026.
There’s good reason for this extremely quick and enthusiastic adoption across the consumer and commercial sectors. 5G has these benefits:
- It’s up to 100 times faster than 4G. Of course, that’s its maximum potential speed; real-world results vary.
- It has extremely low latency, which means very little lag between an input and that input’s intended effect. This is vital for industrial and medical 5G applications.
- It has the potential to support virtual mobile networks (network slicing) and it supports greater numbers of connected devices.
There seems no downside to quick and robust deployment of 5G technology. That’s especially true in a country that wants to make itself as competitive as possible on the global stage.
5G’s Rapid Growth
Major providers like AT&T, Dish, and T-Mobile recently purchased from the American people a wide spectrum of 5G. AT&T spent $9 billion, Dish spent $7.3 billion, and T-Mobile spent $2.9 billion. Verizon was a standout in spending nothing in the auction.
Each participating company will later sell access to this portion of the spectrum back to their customers for a monthly fee.
Amid this massive selling-off of a productive portion of Earth’s available invisible wireless spectrum, rumors about “5G health problems” persist.
Does 5G cause radiation? Should we be worried about the fact that there are so many 5G smartphones in circulation, alongside countless other industrial 5G devices?
Let’s unpack some 5G radiation facts and myths.
Does 5G Cause Radiation, and Is It Bad for Your Health?
Scientific American, which has been in circulation for more than 175 years, has two recently published articles available on the subject of 5G and its purported health hazards. Their headlines are:
“5G Is Coming: How Worried Should We Be About the Health Risks?” – By Kenneth R. Foster, September 16, 2019
“We Have No Reason to Believe 5G Is Safe” – By Joel M. Moskowitz, October 17, 2019
The former concludes there is “little evidence of danger,” which means there is some evidence of danger. The latter article directly references the first, saying: “contrary to what some people say, there could be health risks.”
Even within scientific circles, the safety of 5G, or its possibility to bring harm, is controversial and under current debate. The more cautious paper referenced a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to re-ratify its radiofrequency radiation limits. How “dangerous” or “not dangerous” a thing is a matter of exposure. How much of it can human beings safely expose themselves to it before they should expect bodily harm?
What Science Says About 5G and Health
Scientific American provides more than 500 scientific studies showing evidence that radiofrequency radiation (RFR) can cause adverse health effects. It can cause biological damage even at an intensity to low to detect in the (relatively primitive) 1980s experiments.
In the case of radiofrequency radiation (RFR), the FCC has determined to uphold RFR standards drawn up in the 1990s based on scientific studies performed in the 1980s. Some in the scientific community are worried the business-friendly FCC is making hasty decisions based on outdated evidence – in order to expedite the growth of the United States’ 5G infrastructure on behalf of business interests.
The International EMF Scientist Appeal is currently calling on the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) and its members to ratify more aggressive EMF exposure limits. 5G, being one source of nonionizing electromagnetic fields (EMF), is one of their chief concerns.
RFR is also an influence of note at the United Nations, where it was labeled a possible carcinogen in 2011.
Additionally, a $30-million study performed by the Toxicology Department at the National Institutes of Health published findings in 2018 outlining “clear evidence” that cell phone RFR damages DNA in rats after two years of exposure.
What 5G Facts and Myths are Popular?
The less-cautious-sounding Scientific American article mentioned above calls on a body of research as well.
It also outlines how one of the marquee features of 5G – a transmission technique known as beam-forming – may actually help limit environmental RFR introduced by smartphones and industrial 5G devices. Previous iterations of wireless networks have relied on a blanket-type approach, whereas 5G might, through more precise targeting, create more focused networks that reduce human exposure to the RF spectrum. Nevertheless, 5G does require substantially more cells to function – as many as 350 individual cells per kilometer.
If something causes “DNA damage,” this is shorthand for “causes cancer in humans.” Both interested scientists and this Scientific American writer focus on this, as it’s the wellspring from which both 5G facts and myths seem to arrive.
The scientific studies mentioned earlier involved subjecting mice to prolonged exposure to the radiofrequency spectrum. The studies concluded that, at that level, RF radiation can provoke DNA misfires in test subjects.
What Does This Mean for Human Health?
5G coverage will eventually resemble a worldwide “blanket” of omnipresent internet connectivity delivered by millions of highly targeted 5G cells throughout cities and hillsides. There will be many times more 5G transmission sites than have ever existed under previous wireless internet technologies like 4G. Some of the receiving devices will be smartphones, and others will be irrigation equipment, wrist watches, cars, industrial material handling equipment, and a myriad of other things.
Will this “blanket” of omnipresent RFR be enough to threaten human and environmental health?
Again, another portion of the scientific community has published on that topic. A 2019 study of the ambient levels of RF signals in human-occupied environments concluded that the levels of RFR in the built environment had not increased since 2012. This was attributed to the improvement in power controls within connected devices over time. Simply put: there are more sources of RFR than ever, but they’re becoming more efficient over time.
There’s a distinction worth making about the fundamental technology driving 5G: millimeter wave (mmWave) communication.
Presently, there is limited reading available on how the health effects of mmWave technology might differ from previous cellular technologies. 5G is its first wide-scale deployment, and some worry we’re leaping before we look. An appraisal of existing studies on mmWave’s effects on human beings concluded that the limited studies available have too many variables to be of general use. The appraisal did note, however, that some of the studies found that mmWave could have the ability to “influence biological systems.”
Will We See 5G Soon?
Both Scientific American papers referenced above contain many of their own references to well-conducted bodies of scientific research. Both were written by doctors who’ve published peer-reviewed research, served on committees, and generally been extremely involved in studying radiofrequency technology.
If there’s a reason why Dr. Kenneth R. Foster is more optimistic about 5G being innocuous, we do not know if it is because, as his byline puts it, “Some of his past or future clients may possibly install 5G equipment.”
The dissenting author with whom he shares a masthead at Scientific American, Dr. Joel M. Moskowitz, in answer, discloses that he, himself, has served as an unpaid advisor for Physicians for Safe Technology and other nonprofit organizations.
The debate asking if radiation harm is not unlike the larger scientific community: in times of intense controversy, it often seems like both sides can bring compelling empirical evidence to the table and then argue the opposite as one another. Sometimes some of the participants exhibit potential conflicts of interest.
Also of note is that there appears to be less and less scientific study going on over time as mobile internet technology has progressed from 2G to 3G and now from 4G to 5G. Decision-makers who favor business over science seem to be coasting on the assumption that this family tree of mobile technologies was safe from the beginning. Nationwide investments in 5G are continuing swiftly everywhere on Earth. No matter which camp you side with, no amount of economic growth is worth doing harm to human beings. At a time of blisteringly fast innovation, this is a time for study and for caution – and for being ever watchful of ethical conflicts, even within a community – science – dedicated to impartial and disinterested study.
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