Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece David Levi, CEO of Ethernity Networks, takes a deep dive into the many claims being made about the effect of 5G technology on health.
People have raised concerns about the dangers of technology for as long as there has been technology. Theories that question the safety of cell phones, as well as radio frequency radiation (RFR) in general, have been circulating for decades. This did not begin with 5G.
However, with the recent introduction of 5G masts to big cities around the world, along with the momentum of 5G cell phones and networks, the theories and concerns have multiplied, even to the point of protests. There are a variety of particular claims about how 5G is a health hazard, which range from unsubstantiated to misguided to ridiculous.
It is tempting to dismiss all of the claims as nonsense and ignore them, figuring that any sort of rebuttal may just fuel the fire. However, some of these theories have gained wider acceptance and led to acts of violence and property damage. Anyone in a position to speak must try to bring clarity to the subject and help reduce the misinformation and panic.
This is by no means a new issue. Every generation of cellular technology (as well as other related technologies, like radio transmissions and power lines) have met with resistance.
It is hard to pinpoint where this began, but in terms of cellular technology, the first qualified expert to raise warning flags was most likely Bill Curry, who as a consultant for a school in Florida in 2000 produced a graph that showed that cell phone radiation (RFR) is absorbed in the brain, which could then lead to brain cancer. It also showed greatly increased absorption at higher frequencies.
Although this result was later debunked (by medical and physics experts) as a miscalculation that arose from Curry’s experiment conditions, Curry and others have continued to insist that there are valid health concerns.
Aside from contentions that cell phones or RFR can cause cancer, there are those who claim to have a sensitivity to electromagnetic radiation. Called electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), many have begun to seek medical aid for this “ailment.” However, double-blind tests did not show any evidence to support EHS. The World Health Organization (WHO) also states that there is “no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF (electromagnetic frequency) exposure.”
5G Health Concerns
There have been protests and push-back on each new generation of cellular technology. As 5G is the next generation to be deployed, and has already begun initial rollouts in some locations, detractors have only become louder.
5G protests, however, have taken off in a way that responses to previous generation of cell phones did not. In the past, while not completely marginalized, protestors and cellular technology opposition didn’t gain the headlines that it does today. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that 5G technology requires a high number of cells, so more people see 5G masts in their local vicinity. Or maybe it’s that 5G will operate at a higher frequency that is causing greater concern. Or it could be that COVID‑19 just has everyone a little more on-edge. Whatever the reason, 5G is the subject of an astounding number of conspiracy theories. Here are just a few that can be found easily online:
- 5G causes cancer
- 5G causes electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome (EHS)
- 5G causes COVID-19
- The COVID-19 virus communicates via 5G and RFR
- COVID-19 is not a real virus but actually a coverup for symptoms of 5G
- 5G makes COVID-19 worse or easier to contract
- 5G kills birds
- 5G kills plants
Aside from some of the wilder claims, much of the worry over new radio technology like 5G is due its higher frequency (24-52.6 GHz, as compared to a maximum of 5.9 GHz used by 4G). Bill Curry, the consultant who raised the alarm in 2000, produced a graph that showed significantly higher absorption of radiation at high frequencies. However, as mentioned previously, this research used skinless tissue. Human skin has a “shielding effect” that, in fact, makes higher frequency safer than lower frequency.
In 2012, as 4G was being released, Dr. David Carpenter (director of the SUNY Albany Institute for Health and the Environment) took on the mantle of speaking against cellular technology. He insisted that cell phone radiation is hazardous to our health and especially dangerous at high frequencies. However, when confronted with the scientific evidence that high frequency radiation does not actually mean higher risk, Dr. Carpenter conceded the validity of this point. As the New York Times reported, “5G service requires the placement of many antenna towers, because walls, buildings, rain, leaves and other objects can block the high-frequency signals. ‘That’s why they put the towers so close together,’ he said. ‘The waves don’t penetrate.’ If human skin also blocks 5G signals, Dr. Carpenter acknowledged, ‘maybe it’s not that big a deal.’”
The preponderance of 5G antennas is likely to cause even more panic to those who already fear the effects of the 4G technology. However, it is very important to recognize that the higher frequency in 5G means that the intensity of the 5G cellular signals are significantly lower than those of 4G. Moreover, because the 5G signals will be more easily affected by objects or weather that can block their transmission, they will also be very narrowly directed between the many antennas and end-user devices. 4G signals, on the other hand, are transmitted much more broadly. Both the lower intensity and the narrower transmission signal should, if anything, make 5G even safer than 4G.
4G uses fewer towers but sends a broader, stronger signal transmission than 5G. Thus, person 1 faces more risk of exposure from 4G than person 2 does from 5G’s narrower, weaker signal emanating from more antennas.
Dr. Joel Moskowitz is another vocal proponent of the idea that cell phones and related radio frequency radiation are dangerous. In a response to Dr. Moskowitz’s claims, microbiologist Dr. Alex Berezow explained the flaw in many studies claiming to link cell phones with cancer: Case-control studies are often skewed because of recall bias, whereas cohort studies (which are more accurate) do not support a link between cancer and cell phones. Dr. Berezow further points out that, apart from lack of epidemiological evidence, we have no physical explanation or theory as to how cell phone radiation could cause cancer.
David Robert Grimes (cancer researcher, physicist) also responded to Dr. Moskowitz, in his article titled Don’t Fall Prey to Scaremongering about 5G. Grimes asserted that “a multitude of quality studies conducted over the past few decades have found no measurable detrimental effect of RF radiation (RFR) on human health.” Grimes also noted that radar workers who have been exposed throughout their careers to far higher levels of RFR have no increased cancer risk, which is another strong reason not to believe that this kind of radiation is carcinogenic.
One of more credible sources that Dr. Moskowitz and others quote is a National Toxicology Program (NTP) study on mice and rats. However, upon closer examination there are several issues with this experiment, including low numbers of cancer occurrence, no cancer in exposed female rats, and longer life for exposed rats.
5G and the COVID-19 Virus
Concerns about 5G have reached a fever pitch with claims that it is somehow connected to the outbreak or contraction of COVID-19. There are various versions of this conspiracy theory, but the version that gained the most traction seems to trace back to a viral video of Dr. Thomas Cowan (who is on medical probation). Dr. Cowan asserts that there is in fact no virus. Rather, the COVID-19 symptoms are actual side effects of 5G radiation.
Virologist Dr. Jason Kindrachuk responds by reminding readers that viruses are not debris excreted by cells, as Dr. Cowan claims. Furthermore, he points out that several other “facts” Dr. Cowan touts are false as well. For example, the 1918 Spanish flu actually occurred two years before the first commercial radio station, so it could not possibly have been caused by the new prevalence of radio waves. Dr. Kindrachuk also points out that Wuhan was actually not the first location to deploy 5G. On the contrary, countries like Iran were hit hard early by COVID-19 despite a complete absence of 5G technology.
Debunking the Concerns and Claims
There are three ways we can show unequivocally that these claims are unfounded:
- Scientific theory: How does electromagnetic radiation interact with the human body?
- Medical (epidemiologic) research: What do the high-quality studies show? (In this case, it is crucial to evaluate each study not just by its conclusions, but by its size, methodology, and any shortcomings.)
- Statements from authoritative bodies
Starting with scientific theory, it is commonly understood that ionizing radiation such as x-rays and extreme ultraviolet (UV) are dangerous. Their ionizing characteristic means that these types of radiation can interact with the body on a molecular level, which can lead to cancer.
On the other hand, there is no known theory that explains how RFR or any non-ionizing radiation could interact with bodies, other than by heating. The reason for this can be better understood by a short refresher on the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. The EM spectrum includes (from low to high frequency): gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet, visible light, infrared, microwaves, radio waves.
Physics dictates the energy a photon (light particle) has at each wavelength, which is higher for lower wavelengths and steadily decreases for high wavelengths. A handy chart by B. Jankuloski shows the photon energy (in electronvolts) for the whole spectrum. In order to ionize a molecule or atom, it requires a certain level of photon energy. For example:
- Gamma rays – super high energy; ionizing; very dangerous
- X-rays – high energy; ionizing; dangerous
- UV – borderline; depending on wavelength, can be ionizing; caution required
- Visible – non-ionizing (Note that skin cancer can come from too much sun exposure, because the sun emits UV light. It is not a result of the sun’s visible light.)
- Infrared, microwaves, radio waves – all non-ionizing; nowhere near enough energy to affect the chemistry in one’s body
Non-ionizing radiation can still be harmful with enough power, but it will not be able to affect anything on a molecular level, as that is determined by the energy of the individual photons (since they are on the same size level). At a certain point, radiation will heat up a body and can even cause burns, but this is, of course, at a far higher level than what cell phones are allowed to use.
Notwithstanding the physics, there is still value in examining the medical research. Just because there is currently no physical explanation to the hypothesis that cell phones or RFR can cause cancer does not mean it is conceptually impossible. Perhaps there is some unknown phenomenon that could be at work. Although the argument here is at best tenuous, any danger posed by cell phones would affect a huge population, so many research studies were begun.
Of these, the overwhelming majority showed no connection between cell phones and cancer. The studies that did seem to show a connection usually contain one or more of the following issues:
- The study shows correlation, not causation.
- The study is not statistically significant, and/or uses cherry picked data.
- The study’s findings are inherently flawed due to recall bias.
- The study used a much higher dose of RFR than is allowed or used by cellular technology.
The real danger with this is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to look at each study and determine its validity without being an expert. Someone whose goal is to scare people about cell phones could easily find dozens of studies that seem to show support for their concerns. For this reason, it is worth looking at what experts have to say regarding the state of medical research.
The National Cancer Institute in the United States is a good impartial source, as they are not “for” or “against” cell phones; they simply want to educate about and prevent cancer. This is their summary of the research:
“Researchers have carried out several types of epidemiologic studies in humans to investigate the possibility of a relationship between cell phone use and the risk of malignant and benign brain tumors […] These studies have not shown clear evidence of a relationship between cell phone use and cancer.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist and popular science communicator) explains why some studies seem to show that cell phones cause cancer, some imply there is no connection, and some actually seem to show that cell phones prevent cancer! What we are seeing, he explains, is random noise in the measurement results (which is why the noise is both positive and negative).
Finally, common sense dictates that cell phones do not cause cancer. “Brain cancer incidence rates have declined slightly in recent years,” which would be hard to explain if cell phone use (which has increased greatly over recent years) caused cancer.
Official Statements on Cell Phone Health
When the physical theory is combined with epidemiological research, it makes a very convincing case, but if there is any lingering doubt, we should look to impartial health and regulatory organizations. The WHO classified cell phone use as 2B “possible carcinogenic,” which is the lynchpin in most “cell phones cause cancer” arguments. However, it is crucially important to understand what this 2B category means. “Possibly carcinogenic” means that although there is no evidence that the substance or activity causes cancer, it would be beneficial to continue testing. (Note that pickles and coffee are categorized within this list as well.)
The American Cancer Society (ACS) explains that the WHO’s 2B classification means that “there could be some risk, but that the evidence is not strong enough to be considered causal, and needs to be investigated further.” They also add that “if someone is of the opinion that the absence of strong scientific evidence on the harms of cell phone use is reassuring, […] it would be hard to criticize that.”
- “There is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak RF signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects.”
- “A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.”
Several other regulatory bodies have stated – with slight nuances – that there is no scientific evidence to date that links cell phone use with any health risks:
Damage Resulting from 5G Misinformation
These theories might be interesting, or even entertaining, to read about if they were not causing real-world harm.
In the United Kingdom, theories that 5G is causing COVID-19 have gained a strong following. This led to several 5G masts burnt down, one of which provided critical communication infrastructure for a hospital tending to COVID-19 patients. Technicians providing essential upkeep and upgrades to communications infrastructure are now being harassed and threatened. There are also reports of con artists looking to profit from the 5G health scares.
Beyond acts of arson and harassment, there is a fear that the cloud of misinformation and conspiracy theories will hamper, delay, or even stop the rollout of 5G. The promise of 5G is not just faster streaming for end users. There are a lot of applications that will only become truly viable with 5G communications, such as municipal services (including emergency), remote surgery and medical monitoring, internet of things (IoT), and Industry 4.0 automation. The surge of employees working from home during COVID-19 (which might continue after the virus) also requires faster, more robust communications infrastructure.
Conclusion: Is 5G a Problem? Will It Be Stopped by the Opposition?
Logical fallacies and echo chambers serve to reinforce people’s beliefs that 5G is a hazard to our health. However, after a careful study of the actual science behind 5G, the body of medical research that has been conducted, and statements from impartial authoritative organizations, it is quite clear that the hype surrounding 5G dangers is simply unfounded. As the CDC put it:
“At this time we do not have the science to link health problems to cell phone use.”
Free speech and scientific discourse are important, but misinformation about 5G can seem scientific and therefore legitimate, making it difficult for laypeople to know what to believe. This can lead to economic setbacks, such as delays on rolling out 5G, as well as property damage such as the arson attacks in the United Kingdom. Most disheartening perhaps is that it pits people against 5G (and even 4G) technicians, who are providing essential services to a communications infrastructure that is under greater burden than it has even been before.
Nonetheless, despite all the hurdles is must overcome, 5G is here to stay, and we can look forward to the many groundbreaking technologies that it will bring.
David Levi is CEO of Ethernity Networks. He has spent more than 25 years in the telecommunications industry, including founding a semiconductor company that was later acquired by a major telecoms vendor. He holds two U.S. patents.