5G launches and trials have been accompanied by concerns from groups claiming 5G RF radiation is harmful. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before …
It’s almost an unofficial tradition in the mobile sector that every time a new ‘G’ is officially launched, certain groups of people come out of the woodwork and petition to ban the technology because they’re afraid cellular networks will give us all cancer and kill us.
Unsurprisingly, 5G is turning out to be no exception – recent 5G launches or trials in places like the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore have been accompanied by questions about whether the RF radiation from 5G is harmful to humans.
The answer, you’ll be pleased to know, is: no it’s not, probably.
I did some digging, looking at the various claims about the dangers of 5G, and found that it’s mostly a rehash of similar concerns about cell phone radiation every time a new ‘G’ is rolled out – namely, that will cause cancer, infertility, insanity or some other malady.
And just like with 4G and 3G, the sources of the objections usually turn out to be fringe websites that describe mobile tech in alarmist tones but provide little to no reliable scientific research to back up their claims. Also, the scientific articles they link to tend to not really say what they say it says.
For example, a number of anti-5G sites love to highlight the fact that the WHO put RF radiation on its list of things that are “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 2011. Which is true. What’s also true is that (1) the same list also includes coffee and pickled vegetables, and (2) “possibly” is not a synonym for “definitely”.
Catch the mmWave
Anyway, while 5G health hysteria is essentially a parallel upgrade of the same health worries over 4G and 3G, 5G does add a couple of new ingredients to the mix: (1) it uses millimeter-wave spectrum, and (2) it requires a lot more cellular density.
The fear is that this means we will be surrounded by thousands of 5G base stations bombarding our bodies with millimeter-wave radio signals beamed from massive MIMO antennas, and surely that can’t be safe, right?
Part of this fear is due to a misunderstanding of how mmWave works. For a start, many anti-5G sites point out that 5G uses the same frequency bands as the US military’s Active Denial System – a non-lethal “pain ray” weapon that uses mmWaves to make you feel like you’re on fire. In fact, the ADS uses the 95 GHz band, not the 28 GHz band used by 5G (though that possibly doesn’t matter since the point of the comparison is to make 5G sound more dangerous than it is).
Also, according to the New York Times, much of the dithering over mmWave originates from a chart created almost 20 years ago by a physicist who claimed that the higher the frequency used in wireless networks, the more likely the radiation would penetrate the human body and do damage. However, the NYT reports, the graph fails to take into account the shielding effect of human skin:
According to experts on the biological effects of electromagnetic radiation, radio waves become safer at higher frequencies, not more dangerous.
That said, a 2018 paper from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem claims to have uncovered a new twist to this particular argument. The research authors said they have discovered that when human skin is exposed to RF radiation closer to the sub-THz bands, sweat ducts in the upper skin layer appears to act as a “helical antenna” that absorbs radiation rather than reflects it. If so, that would suggest mmWaves might penetrate human skin more than previously thought.
However, the paper doesn’t make any definitive conclusions – the researchers only say there’s enough evidence of possible harmful health effects of mmWave 5G that this is worth researching further. (Naturally, the anti-5G sites are presenting this as solid proof 5G is a health threat.)
Safety standards – we have them
One piece missing from the anti-5G puzzle is the fact that the wireless industry is very aware of the possible harmful effects of RF radiation. They also know that the extent to which it can harm people depends on how much power is used to propagate the signal, how close you are to the antenna (to include the one in your smartphone) and for how long.
That’s why the mobile industry complies with maximum power levels for radios that have been set and standardized by ICNIRP (the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection).
In fact, ICNIRP advisor Professor Rodney Croft told BBC News earlier this month that the organization has already addressed the 5G issue:
“The exposure that 5G will produce has been considered in great depth by ICNIRP, with the restrictions set well below the lowest level of 5G-related radio frequency that has been shown to cause harm,” says Prof Croft.
Here’s another way to look at it: it’s been over 25 years since 2G went live, and the number of cases of people developing cancer as a direct result of using mobile phones is, as far as I know, zero.
So yeah, all things considered, I’m going to go ahead and assume that 5G is as safe as every G before it unless and until someone can produce credible evidence to the contrary.