As super-fast 5G wireless service starts to spread around the globe, murmurs of concern are spreading on Facebook and via Charge.org petitions that this new technology could present a hazard to human health. At the heart of this tension is an economic imperative to move ahead with a technology that could have a profound impact on the speed of business—while also ensuring that it’s safe.
The scientific concern in the U.S. over electromagnetic radiation—similar to the fears over 5G today—dates back roughly 20 years and surrounds a particular study that suggested the human brain absorbs more radiation as radio frequencies gets higher. That work has largely been debunked. But recent research into cellphone radiation has raised more questions than given answers, which may be fueling the unease about 5G’s new, higher frequency radio waves.
What is 5G, exactly? It is wireless technology that will allow us to download big fat files—like movies, games, and more—a lot faster, and generally increase the speed of operating online. This next wave of wireless will operate at higher frequencies than 4G. The radio waves themselves, called millimeter waves, will also be shorter. These higher frequency waves don’t penetrate buildings or trees as well as their lengthier cousins. As a result, 5G requires a large amount of infrastructure. To finally get to 5G, there will need to be significantly more antennas, closer together. So far, three telecom providers in South Korea have launched a 5G network. Several providers in the U.S. are laying the groundwork for similar networks, a process that’s been rife with issues.
According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association, there is no scientifically validated evidence that chronic exposure to radio waves at frequencies between 0 and 300 gigahertz are connected to adverse health effects—and 5G is not expected to go above that cap. And researchers at New York University and Temple University School of Medicine say it’s likely the shorter wave lengths associated with 5G won’t penetrate human skin, possibly making it even less of a health concern than previous technology.
Still, in 2011, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said that electromagnetic radiation was possibly carcinogenic to humans. It is currently classified under the same designation as gasoline, engine exhaust, and the plant Aloe. There is continuing research into the effects of electromagnetic radiation on human health, including an independent 30-year study called the COSMOS project, which started in 2007. The international consortium published its first study in October, which looked at the incidence of headache and mobile phone use. Researchers analyzed phone records over four years and interviewed subjects about their phone use and frequency of headaches, as well as history of hearing loss or tinnitus, which is the perception of sound when there is none. They found that though there was a slight increase in headache among the heaviest cellphone users, it was negated once other variables were accounted for.
5G is an emerging technology that hasn’t really been defined yet.”
Despite a lack of substantial evidence directly connecting cellphones to human health problems, people are looking for other signals that show these radio waves may be harmful. When a study in the U.K. found the rates of one hard-to-treat brain cancer were on the rise, some researchers implicated cellphones because the tumors were appearing near the ear and forehead (the study did not look at the cause of the tumors). A 2018 report from the U.S. National Toxicology Program found that when male rats had their whole bodies exposed to high levels of radiation at radio frequencies comparable to that of 2G and 3G cellphones, they developed malignant heart tumors. There was some evidence linking that exposure to adrenal gland and brain tumors in male rats. For female rats, as well as female and male mice, it was unclear whether any of the tumors that developed were related to the radio frequency exposure. Still, rat studies are not the same as human studies. Furthermore, the rats interacted with radio frequency waves for longer and at higher concentrations that the average cellphone user. Finally, as the study’s lead researcher Michael Wyde noted in a writeup on the research, it had nothing to do with 5G.
“5G is an emerging technology that hasn’t really been defined yet,” Wyde wrote. “From what we currently understand, it likely differs dramatically from what we studied.”
The debate over whether or not electromagnetic radiation can hurt humans remains contentious. Many scientists maintain that low-frequency radio waves from cellphones are not harmful to humans. Much of the research is inconclusive, in part because a good portion of studies rely on participants to self-report their experience and because there are too many environmental factors that could play a role in the health effects that do appear.
In addition, all of the research so far has been conducted on earlier generations of wireless technology. There are no studies on the impact of 5G. In February, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut expressed dismay over the lack of research on 5G and human health. Some scientists have expressed concern and called for further exploration of 5G before the network is unleashed. Cities around the U.S. are fighting the deployment of 5G over both health concerns and the aesthetics of the new antennas.
You have to separate the marketing of 5G from the technology 5G.”
At the same time, it is important to understand the political and commercial context in which this technology is being debated. Because 5G will advance the rate at which files are downloaded and therefore the pace at which business is conducted, the first countries to adopt this technology will have an economic advantage. Already, 4 million people (possibly 5 million by the end of the year) in South Korea have signed up for 5G service. Some speculate that Russia is attempting to sow distrust of 5G among Americans to slow its technological progress through a foreign influence campaign. RT America, the Russian news outlet, has featured several pieces on 5G and its potential hazards. Meanwhile, Russia is already rolling out 5G in Moscow.
When it comes to health concerns about 5G, the other thing to consider that 5G has not yet been rolled out extensively in the United States.
“You have to separate the marketing of 5G from the technology 5G,” says Alex Gellman, CEO of Vertical Bridge, which provides cell tower infrastructure to wireless companies. “There [are] a lot of claims around 5G that are really just enhanced 4G, if you will, and that’s because there’s not the end-to-end international standard for what 5G is.” Verizon, AT&T, and others say they are already rolling out 5G across the U.S. However, as Gellman points out, the international group 3GPP, which is defining the parameters of 5G, won’t begin its work on specifications until early 2020.
What we know is that 5G won’t be widespread for at least a few years, even if studies have yet to be conducted. And if you are still worried about the effects of cellphone radiation, use a hands-free headset.