The Media Is Overstating the Health Danger of 5G

Misguided caution about the health effects of cellphones and their networks is hindering progress

Photo: Artur Debat/Getty Images

I am a student at Harvard College studying electrical engineering and am in no way affiliated with telecommunications companies or lobbyist groups seeking to expedite the rollout of 5G or activist groups seeking to halt its rollout.

WeWe are on the verge of a communications revolution. The global rollout of 5G could signal an end to competing wireless networks and provide a unified system to connect power-hungry mobile phones and tiny internet of things sensors alike. As the U.S. and the EU argue over the geopolitical risks of 5G expansion and pressure mounts to install more 5G infrastructure, pushback from scientists and citizens threatens to stall progress. So it’s important to ask: Do 5G and other communications infrastructure present a risk to human and animal health?

To answer this question, we first need to explore traditional cellular infrastructure (2G, 3G, and some 4G) and how 5G is changing that. The term “cellular” in “cellular network” comes from the original cell-based layout of phone systems. High-power cell towers serve large overlapping regions, which allowed carriers to rapidly deploy cell networks across the globe. This architecture is still the backbone for cellular service in suburban and rural areas.

These systems operate on lower-frequency portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, as lower-frequency waves (around 850 MHz and 1.9 GHz for 3G) are less easily blocked by obstacles. These bands are crowded with devices, and can only support certain maximum speeds. To overcome these limitations, the 5G specification extends communications into higher-frequency bands.

The cell-based architecture of cellular phone networks. Illustrations courtesy of the author.

Millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum is a new band that exceeds 24 GHz and supports ultra-fast communications. Faster speeds come at a price, however. Millimeter wave electromagnetic radiation can barely penetrate through buildings, practically necessitating antennas on every street corner in urban areas. In non-urban areas, any hills or obstacles will also block mmWave. All carriers plan to deploy 5G on existing low-band spectrum, and slowly build out mmWave capabilities in cities.

This is where the health concerns about 5G begin. There have been plenty of studies and worries about cellular networks in the past, but the cell antennas themselves were largely out of sight and out of mind. With 5G, we will see the antennas more directly, and that makes some people more concerned about the increased antenna density and higher-frequency electromagnetic radiation.

Carriers will employ a large number of mmWave antennas (illustrated here in color) to serve urban environments.

What’s at stake in the 5G rollout?

There are strong arguments in either direction on 5G. If a country were to ban 5G rollout pending further health research, it could miss out on the tremendous economic potential that 5G provides and be left in the dust by less conservative nations. In fact, the New York Times reports that Russia is intentionally sowing mistrust of 5G in the United States to stall the U.S. 5G rollout process. Additionally, it’s much more difficult to prove that something is safe than to prove that it isn’t, which could greatly extend the 5G installation process.

There is absolutely no evidence that moderate radiofrequency (RF) exposure causes immediate and severe health effects. Any problems that could arise would be more subtle and hard to attribute to telecommunications systems, such as increased cancer or infertility rates. The main argument against 5G rollout is that the economic potential isn’t worth this gamble.

Mainstream media coverage of a link between radiofrequency radiation (RFR) and adverse health effects essentially started with a 2011 report by the WHO-affiliated International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). (You can access a press release on the report here.) In this report, the IARC considered hundreds of scientific articles investigating a link between the electromagnetic radiation emitted from cell phones and certain types of cancers. As a result of their analysis, they classified RFR as “possibly carcinogenic.”

The report only concludes decisively that more research is necessary. It does not establish a strong link between RFR and cancer, and it does not assess risk. Despite this, sources such as CNET published articles like “WHO: Cell phones may cause cancer” aiming to draw in readers with flashy titles. Pseudoscientific websites aiming to sell products also used this to their advantage, with taglines like “the World Health Organisation listed EMFs [RFR] as a class 2b carcinogen, amongst the likes of lead and asbestos.”

Some participants in the IARC group published an after-action report, with the following passage:

“Finally, we turn to the furor that immediately followed the IARC classification and the lessons learned for risk communication and management. As with many potentially harmful environmental agents, even before the IARC classification, there was already a range of viewpoints in the face of scientific uncertainty, some strongly held. The classification as possibly carcinogenic to humans was trivialized by some who compared it with other agents having a 2B classification and acclaimed by others who found justification for their opinion that mobile phones present a danger. The subtlety of the 2B classification [the “possibly carcinogenic” distinction] — that there is some, albeit uncertain evidence of risk, precluding classification as conveying no risk (Group 4) — proved difficult to communicate and did not fit well with media seeking a more definitive position.”

Governmental agencies were even guilty of the tactics described in this passage. The FDA trivializes the report by listing other 2B items like coffee.

The response and follow-up to the 2011 IARC report highlight the problem with public discussion of radio waves and health: The media seeks to offer readers a decisive explanation, and often polarize research results. There is no evidence to support immediate and profound health effects, so the aggregate findings of current research studies only provides weak evidence in either direction. Media companies might even stand to benefit from the increased connectivity that 5G provides, further compounding the problem and potentially casting doubt on the impartiality of reporting.

To make matters even worse, the spread of misinformation is now easier than ever thanks to the proliferation of social media. Social media has a demonstrable contribution to the spread of pseudoscientific activism such as the anti-vaccine movement or various “Stop 5G” campaigns. One can only imagine the undue uproar that a report of similar magnitude to the 2011 WHO study would cause today.

It will be very difficult to ever rule out health risks associated with RFR. One of the only ways this could be done conclusively would be through a longitudinal study that could somehow measure the RF exposure of all frequencies over all parts of participants’ bodies. Measuring exposure in this manner is (currently) impossible, so surrogates for human exposure exist in studies such as questionnaires and interviews. Whatever connections that can be made from findings involving self-reporting are tenuous at best, and results from long-term animal exposure studies have not identified any risks.

Most media characterization of this entire process misses the subtleties of various classifications and conclusions like the IARC 2B. Nearly every article since the report advocating for caution with RF deployment cites it, and intentionally or unintentionally mischaracterizes it in the process.

Take, for example, this press release by a group of 248 scientists in July 2019. In it, the authors make an appeal to the UN “to seriously address the rapidly escalating health and environmental crisis caused by man-made EMF pollution.” As evidence, they list that the IARC “classified radiofrequency radiation as a Group 2B ‘Possible Carcinogen’ in 2011.” This appeal from respected scientists is guilty of the same polarization that afflicts mainstream media.

Activist groups quickly take material such as this and twist it into claims about how 5G will kill birds, sterilize the population, and cause climate change.

One of the many online images describing the “dangers” of 5G. Image from this petition.

Clearly there’s a problem with the way 5G is viewed and discussed. It’s easy to get wrapped up in articles on both sides that all draw different conclusions from the same limited set of studies.

What we know about 5G

There are a few important points that most research supports and most scientists will agree on.

  1. RF exposure can cause health problems at significantly high exposure levels. Recent studies performed on mice support this. This does not prove, however, that communications systems are dangerous. The power levels used on the affected mice were way beyond anything a human would experience in day-to-day life.
  2. Low-band signals do not pose an immediate threat to human life and have not definitively impacted populations.
  3. Higher-frequency signals have not been definitively proven to be harmful to health, although study quality is lacking.

Almost every government maintains that there has not been sufficient evidence to warrant scaling back 5G deployment. Government agencies are closely monitoring ongoing studies, and have found no statistically significant link between RFR and health risks. Petitions to stop 5G deployment are based on exaggerated claims and unsupported evidence.

Another key finding of current research is that we need to conduct more studies. Scientists have not been able to definitely say that there are no health risks, so vigilance is important. As long-term studies complete, we should have more evidence. Again, to definitively prove that there are no health risks, is much more difficult than proving that there might be risks. An additional point to note is that 5G may actually lower overall exposure, according to the International Telecommunication Union. An increased antenna density means that both 5G antennas and phones can operate at power levels orders of magnitude lower than traditional systems. This means that a phone may only need to reach an antenna across the street as opposed to a few blocks away. Most current research actually focuses on the effects of radiation coming from phones, as these are the sources closest to a user’s body, so lowering phone transmission power levels could have a huge impact. Additionally, 5G antennas employ beam-forming technology to direct communications toward a user, lowering your exposure from others’ signals.

If there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s that media coverage of health-related topics with radio systems needs to be better. Most articles from reputable sources do a great job of assessing the current situation and its limited information; however, all it takes is one viral article that carefully selects certain conclusions to sow mistrust about key technologies for the future.

I'm a Harvard student, maker, and radio enthusiast. Check out my book on radio communications at amzn.to/341cywA and my website at www.AlexWulff.com

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