Lately we’ve heard a lot of remarks like this: “5G harms human health“, “5G kills bees“,”5G causes cancer“, “overwhelming evidence says 5G is dangerous” and “we have no evidence this technology is safe.” Such statements are often being repeated in opposition to new UK mobile masts, but are they right and should we be concerned.
The issue has become particularly prominent of late, not least because some anti-5G campaign groups have managed to gain traction by causing several UK local authorities to take a position against future 5G mobile broadband deployments (e.g. Totnes in Devon, Glastonbury and Frome in Somerset).
Sometimes it’s best to answer concerns like this by first covering the basics of how mobile, and wireless communication signals in general (aka – radio waves), actually work. Such signals form one part of what’s known as the Electromagnetic Spectrum, which reflects a range of frequencies of electromagnetic (EM) radiation and their respective wavelengths / photon energies.
Sadly many people don’t fully appreciate what this is or how it works, which is perhaps partly reflected by the way that the anti-5G campaigns concentrate so much effort on one technology. However the issues they raise are by no means isolated to a specific radio technology and thus denigrating 5G so specifically tends to confuse the argument.
What is EM Radiation?
EM radiation is essentially energy that travels and spreads out as it goes, at different wavelengths (think ripples on the surface of an ocean), although you could also say that it reflects different kinds of light (most of them are invisible to human eyes but some animals and cameras can see more than we do). How we perceive or experience this radiation depends a lot on the wavelength, distance and energy behind it.
For example, the Sun produces all of the different kinds of electromagnetic radiation, although 99% of its rays are in the form of visible light, ultraviolet and infrared (the latter is also known as heat). The heat (thermal energy) you feel on your face from the sun on a cold winter’s morning is mostly infrared and so too is that heat you feel from somebody else’s body when in close proximity, while ultraviolet is what gives your skin a tan (or burn, if your exposure is too high) and visible light is obviously what you see. Without all this heat and light we would not exist.
NOTE: When an object absorbs any kind of light it heats up as it now has more energy than before, but often this effect is so small that you can’t feel it unless it’s very energetic.
We are quite simply bathed in a soup of all the different types of EM radiation (light), which is a part of our natural environment and life on this planet thrives alongside it. Similarly humans have also found ways of manipulating this for various different purposes, although some of it can be harmful, particularly when wavelengths become very short and massively more powerful (e.g. ionizing gamma rays from exposed nuclear power cores).
Take note that the illustration above is not to scale as the differences are huge (e.g. ultraviolet frequencies are 10,000 times higher than sunlight and sunlight is 1,000 times higher than microwaves etc.).
Ionizing vs Non-Ionozing EM Radiation
Science generally classifies everything from radio waves, microwaves, infrared and visible light as non-ionizing radiation, which means it doesn’t normally have enough energy (low energy) to knock electrons off the atoms that it interacts with and won’t do damage, such as breaking chemical bonds in molecules (i.e. it’s not usually harmful to humans).
By comparison ultraviolet (only the top end from around 3000 Terahertz), X-rays and gamma rays are all classified as ionizingradiation, which is more of a health hazard to humans because it involves changing the basic makeup of atoms in cells (e.g. the DNA molecules inside of cells).
However it normally takes a higher dosage of ionizing radiation before any negative health impacts start to show. For example, your skin will burn from ultraviolet if you spend too long in the sun without protection, but a thin layer of sun cream is all it takes to prevent this and brief expose is not really a concern. Likewise it would take a fair few body scans or flights abroad before you’d need to worry about X-rays.
Crucially the above is not to say that the various different types of non-ionizing radiation cannot still cause you harm, although officially the only recognised health effect is heating and, judging by our inbox, this is where a lot of people tend to get very confused.
Dr Richard Findlay, Society for Radiological Protection’s EMF and Optical Radiation Committee, said:
“There are two types of radiation. Ionising is the kind that you get in hospital when you have radiotherapy. Non-ionising radiation is what comes out of phone masts and TV towers. People get confused about adverse health effects.
Cancer is not a recognised health effect as a result of exposure from masts, for example. The only health effect is heating. In terms of a 25 metre mast, that is far enough away from people who are at ground level.”
The other big problem here is that the news media often talks about “radiation” in general terms as a negative, which is unhelpful without some definition as to its type and energy or dosage level. For example, Gamma rays are always harmful but we are naturally surrounded by them, except our daily dosage is minuscule (i.e. not particularly harmful at natural levels) and not even remotely like the colossal dosage levels of an exposed nuclear power core (e.g. see Sky’s Chernobyl TV services).
Wait.. So Are Radio Waves Safe or Not?
When we talk about radio waves here we’re generally covering non-ionizing wireless communication systems like Bluetooth, WiFi, Fixed Wireless Links and Mobile (2G to 5G). However ISPreview.co.uk has had plenty of emails from people who suggest that 5G is dangerous because, for example, a military weapon system may be designed using some of the same frequencies (this highlights a fundamental confusion in understanding).
Common Radio Bands for Wi-Fi and Mobile
Wi-Fi = 2.4GHz, 5GHz, 6GHz
Mobile (2G – 5G) = 700MHz, 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2.1GHz, 2.3 GHz, 2.6GHz, 3-4GHz
NOTE: 5G mostly uses the same bands as existing UK mobile networks above, although in the future it may harness 24-26GHz or higher (aka – millimeter Waves [mmW]).
The key consideration, in health terms, for any technology using radio spectrum (not just 5G) is the combination with power and distance. This is a bit like how Microwave Ovens(2.45GHz) use the same sort of band as WiFibut obviously they cook (i.e. HEAT) food by using lots of power (800 Watts+) and focusing it at ultra-short-range (a few centimetres).
Such ovens are shielded for safety but a small bit of their radiation will escape during use, which is why they tell you not to touch the oven when it’s running. Obviously you’d need to have a truly horrific death-wish to put your head inside a Microwave Oven while it’s running, although such devices are designed not to work if the door is ever left open.
By comparison WiFi only uses a minuscule fraction of that power (often only a few hundred milliwatts but busy multi-band devices can gobble c.1-2 Watts) to send a signal over an extremely wide area (e.g. your entire house or flat), while most of us sit many metres or even miles away from the source of similar Mobile signals. WiFi signals are thus very weak (energy wise) and soon degrade over a few tens of metres to the point of being unusable (especially if you have a few rooms / walls between you and the router – these reflect and absorb some of the signal, weakening it).
NOTE: At any given moment your body will only be interacting with a tiny portion of the aforementioned WiFi signal as its widely distributed (i.e. the energy you receive is less than the source output).
Confusing these two types of scenario (Microwave Oven vs WiFi or Mobile) is a bit like equating petrol to water because both are clear liquids, even though they’re both radically different in their use, impact upon human health and the environment. As such a military weapon that uses tens or hundreds of Kilowatts of power to focus on a narrow target area within a few close feet or metres via a common radio band is thus completely different to the wide coverage and extremely low power of WiFi or mobile signals.
NOTE: Devices like some baby monitors, DECT phones, TVs, wireless alarms and even some household lights may emit more powerful EM radiation within your home than Mobile.
This is largely why the World Health Organisation (WHO) has long said there is no proven risk of cancer from mobile phone use, while at the same time classifying all radio frequency radiation (not only mobile or WiFi etc.) as “possibly carcinogenic” (i.e. the potential exists to cause harm but you’d generally need to put lots of power behind the signal and use it in a deliberately harmful way) and hence the confusion that a lot of people have.
Crucially the Mobile and WiFi networks that are all deployed today must conform to strict scientifically agreed rules for power and signal. As stated earlier the only known health effect in humans from such signals is heating and for the most part this is so weak as to be imperceivable (note: if you feel heat from your mobile or router when in close proximity then that’s just infrared from the chipset and NOT WiFi or Mobile!).
Margot James MP, Former Digital Minster, said:
“A considerable amount of research has been carried out on radio waves and Public Health England have concluded that exposures of radio waves to the public are well within the international health-related guideline levels that are used in the UK.”
Matt Warman MP, UK Digital Minister, said:
“[The] government will support work to bust health myths over 5G, which WHO say poses the same risk as talcum powder and pickled vegetables. There is no credible evidence to back up concerns and huge evidence for the economic benefit of gigabit-capable networks.”
An Ofcom spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:
“We work with Public Health England and take their recommendations into account in how we manage airwaves. They have found no evidence that 5G poses any new health risks compared to previous mobile technologies.
There are international guidelines to ensure mobile airwaves are transmitted safely, and the airwaves that will be used for 5G have been used safely in telecoms and other services for many years. We will continue to work with health bodies and monitor any developments to the evidence in this area.”
Check out the NHS and Public Heath Englandfor some more guidance. Speaking of which, radio waves are generally so weak that even lower frequency digital TV signals (usually operating from upwards of 470MHz) can easily be disrupted by changes in atmospheric temperature and pressure (i.e. different weather systems), which may cause such signals to be refracted or bounce off an inversion overhead.
Please flick over to page 2 to continue reading and see our Q&A summary of common points.
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, Google+, Facebook and Linkedin.Page 2 of 2
We should point out that modern mobile handsets and related equipment tend to contain additional shielding and must conform to strict standards, which factor in the risks (mobile signals tend to be very safely within this guidance). Nevertheless most people agree that you should still observe some common sense when handling such things, so no sleeping on top of your mobile phone at night and don’t strap that WiFi router to your head 24/7 with tape (we’ve yet to see anybody do this but there’s always.. somebody).
Not that you’d suffer any ill health impact from the signal itself if you did the above, but keeping some distance between yourself and the device just helps to minimise any perceived risk, however small that may already be. At this point it may help if we try to answer some of the most common concerns about 5G health fears.
Q. Won’t those new millimeter Wave bands at a higher frequency fry my brain?
When it comes to 5G a lot of the concern has tended to centre around the mmW bands, which are fairly new to mobile networks (albeit not WiFi via the 60GHz using 802.11ad standard). But one thing to remember here is that higher frequency signals don’t travel as far and are more easily disrupted than lower frequency ones, thus mmW is usually considered better for focused fixed wireless links than for a mobile environment.
In order to maximise the performance and coverage of mmW a mobile operator will have to deploy a very dense network of masts, small cells and base stations (i.e. only really viable in busy urban areas), which is extremely expensive and difficult to supply (no major UK mobile operators have done this.. yet). All of this is just to get a limited amount of short-range low power urban coverage, which won’t go through solids (e.g. walls) and will likewise struggle to go through your skin.
Opponents of 5G often fear the impact of spreading mini 5G stations, but as above it could be argued that mmW is even less of a threat to you than any perceived fears about the existing lower frequency mobile bands. Certainly it should be easier to hinder the passage of such bands and by having a denser network your Smartphone may actually dial down its own power output because it can get a stronger signal.
One irony here is that people who buy mobile cases with extra radiation shielding merely cause the device to automatically boost its signal output in order to compensate as it tries to maintain reception.
Q. What about those videos of 5G killing birds on the internet?
So far as we could tell they’re almost all unsubstantiated (at least in terms of any independently verified connection to 5G) and most seem to occur during migrations (i.e. mass bird movements), where it’s sadly not uncommon for birds to die while piling into large glass windows or becoming confused at night by bright lights.
A few years ago some people blamed a 5G test in the Netherlands on the deaths of hundreds of birds. The birds were checked and instead it was found that they had been eating not only the non-poisonous berries of the local yew trees, but also their toxic needles. Birds are good at flying, but not so good at avoiding lots of potential hazards within their increasingly human dominated environment.
Q. Fine, not the birds, but it surely is killing off the Bees, right?
According to Jean-Daniel Charrière, a scientists at the Swiss centre of excellence for agricultural research: “All studies on this topic to date have been unable to confirm that electrosmog causes problems for bees.” However a big decline in Bees, as well as their related productivity of honey, has occurred but this has been going on since long before the deployment of 5G.
Known experts in this field have instead been able to link most of the decline back to more familiar problems, such as climate change and pesticides (notably neonicotinoids). The spread of varroa mites in beehives has also caused a significant problem (examples). Bees remain highly susceptible to changes in weather (e.g. late frosts, heatwaves) and environmental chemicals, which makes it a bad time to be a Bee.
Lest we forget that most Beehives and natural colonies tend to exist in more rural areas, where only weaker mobile signals (if any) tend to be present and 5G remains largely absent.
Q. Masses of research papers and scientists say 5G is bad for your health, don’t they?
No, this is another classic miss-understanding, which often occurs due to people failing to put the research that has been conducted and peer reviewed into the correct context (we’ve given much of the context above). Often this is then conflated with false research of questionable origin, rather than hard empirical evidence.
Some of the studies are merely based on people surveys, which can easily be misread and fall into the old “correlation is not causation” trap. In other words, justbecause two things seem to correlate does not necessarily mean that one causes the other and thus by themselves they are not much help.
Meanwhile other studies tend to involve animals (e.g. rats) and proportionally higher power levels (see our microwave oven example above), some of which involved sticking transmitters directly to their skulls, neither of which is directly comparable to the current low power mobile environment and normal use by humans. But these are another reason why the World Health Organisation (WHO) has taken the “possibly carcinogenic” approach, out of an abundance of caution. Remember some common meats and vegetables fall into the same category, but we all eat them.
Another way of reading properly vetted studies is to say that the health effects of electromagnetic energy (EME) are far from untested, with more than 25,000 studies over the years. This includes more than 500 on working in close proximity to high power mmW signals, such as higher powered radar installations on aircraft carriers. All of those have helped to set the current international guidelines for power levels and exposure etc.
Meanwhile many other studies that claim electromagnetic fields are harmful to health (e.g. by causing cancer) do not fulfil scientific criteria. These include acknowledged quality standards, such as the ability to reproduce the results of the study, and its publication in a scientific journal.
Finally, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently banned an advert by campaign group Electrosensitivity-UK after it was found to have wrongfully claimed that the roll-out 5G networks could result in a range of health effects, such as “reduced male fertility, depression, disturbed sleep and headaches, as well as cancer” (here).
It’s very much worth reading the ASA’s summary on the alleged “evidence” provided by EUK, which among other things included a YouTube video of a Canadian radio talk show in which a scientist hypothesised the extinction of life forms due to 5G radiation. “That material, along with many others, lacked the robustness of an appropriately designed observational study or clinical trial,” said the ASA.
Q. I suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) and fear 5G mobile might kill me, will it?
Sadly this one is a bit more complicated due to aspects of psychology and psychosomatic effects, which fall outside my own field of expertise. As such I will defer to the World Health Organisation (WHO) again and the RationalWiki.
“A number of studies have been conducted where EHS individuals were exposed to EMF similar to those that they attributed to the cause of their symptoms. The aim was to elicit symptoms under controlled laboratory conditions.
The majority of studies indicate that EHS individuals cannot detect EMF exposure any more accurately than non-EHS individuals. Well controlled and conducted double-blind studies have shown that symptoms were not correlated with EMF exposure.
It has been suggested that symptoms experienced by some EHS individuals might arise from environmental factors unrelated to EMF. Examples may include “flicker” from fluorescent lights, glare and other visual problems with VDUs, and poor ergonomic design of computer workstations. Other factors that may play a role include poor indoor air quality or stress in the workplace or living environment.
There are also some indications that these symptoms may be due to pre-existing psychiatric conditions as well as stress reactions as a result of worrying about EMF health effects, rather than the EMF exposure itself.”
None of this is to say that the symptoms aren’t real, in fact they are very real and vary wildly in severity, although at present the WHO says that EHS has “no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure.” As above, the nocebo effect is often said to be the more likely cause (psychosomatic). We are prisoners of our own minds and sadly the brain is NOT impervious to self-damage.
The ultimate problem with the argument for EHS as an actual illness is that if it were an actual condition then people suffering from it would have died long ago, or be in constant pain. The civilized parts of the world are blanketed with electromagnetic signals from radio and satellite signal transmission, wires, electrical devices, networks and not to mention those from our natural environment (space etc.).
Likewise many of those claiming to suffer from EHS have undertaken diagnostic MRI procedures without any problems. In other words, they claim that electromagnetic fields in the milliwatt range cause all sorts of symptoms, yet at the same time they appear to be totally insensitive to electromagnetic pulses in the kilowatt range.
Q. But 5G is a totally new technology, isn’t it?
Arguably we’ve now answered this, but generally 5G adheres to broadly the same radio spectrum and power limits as 4G did before (in many cases it actually outputs LESS power). Obviously 5G does go beyond this by extending into more bands (e.g. mmW) but, as stated before, this has all been covered through various other studies and hence the current international limits.
Meanwhile the hardware changes for 5G, such as in the radio chipsets (hardware) and data communication itself, are largely irrelevant since they are not the part that your body will interact with (from a health perspective it is, as stated above, more a matter of the radio bands, power and signal distance).
Q. Governments and mobile operators are just colluding in a massive conspiracy to bring 5G via the back-door, aren’t they?
Democratic governments are historically worse than useless at keeping things secret. In fact the more people involved in a conspiracy, the less likely it is to stay secret for very long and no political party likes to lose power in elections. So the idea that there’s one massive conspiracy, crossing multiple countries, to roll-out 5G while in the knowledge that it’s going to give us all cancer – something that real studies have yet to prove – seems completely absurd.
Q. We currently have a 15 metre 4Gmast and there are plans to replace it with a 25 metre 5G mast, does this carry a higher risk?
No. The only ones likely to suffer an increased risk are those who actually have to climb the mast for maintenance, but for people underneath a taller mast is actually better from the perspective of any health concerns. The further away you are from that large antenna at the top, the better, as the signal weakens quite quickly (just a few extra metres from source makes a big difference).
As a bonus tall masts will cover a wider area, which means you actually need fewer masts or base stations overall.
Q. Didn’t physicist Dr Bill P. Curry produce a report that clearly showed WiFi and mobile style signals were a cancer risk?
Yes but he got it VERY wrong and has been widely debunked. In 2000, the Broward County Public Schools in Florida received a shocking report and graph from Bill P. Curry, a consultant and physicist, who had been asked to study the possible health impacts of WiFi equipped laptops in the school. This study has since spread like wildfire and become part of the anti-5G “evidence” case, but it’s also an example of how quickly bad science can propagate.
Sadly Dr. Curry and his graph got it massively wrong, not least by failing to recognise that radio waves become safer at higher frequencies (i.e. they find it harder to propagate without adding lots of extra power), not more dangerous, which we’ve already covered. His analysis also failed to correctly recognise the protective effect of human skin. The New York Timesgives a good summary of what went wrong.
Q. Didn’t Brussels ban the roll-out of 5G over health fears?
Yes, but much like similar moves in parts of Devon and Somerset, this followed an anti-5G campaign using unsubstantiated claims, but crucially that isn’t the only reason. Brussels has some of the strictest radiation standards in the whole world for wireless signals (around 50 times stricter than what the EU and the World Health Organisation allow), which makes it difficult for mobile operators to secure the necessary licenses.
The strict standards are not only an issue for 5G and in the past it has impacted other wireless services too. On top of that the Federal government has been slow to even put 5G licenses up for sale, which is not unlike how Ofcom in the UK has so far only auctioned off the 3.4GHz band for 5G and many other bands, such as 700MHz, have yet to be sold (expected to occur in 2020).
Meanwhile the Brussels Minister for the Environment, Alain Maron, said (October 2019): “I will not take any further steps in this matter as long as Brussels Environment cannot offer me the necessary technical guarantees … And as long as the licences are not for sale, there is no rush.” As usual the situation is more complicated than some people claim.
At present there doesn’t appear to be any solidly proven and substantiated reason to be concerned about 5G. Nevertheless we firmly believe there’s always room for more research (e.g. around the perhaps less familiar mmW bands) and that’s true of every technology, not only radio waves. On the other hand we live in a world where there are those who genuinely believe the Earth is flat, yet no reason or obvious evidence to the contrary will ever convince them otherwise.
However there are situations where 5G, or mobile technology in general, may still cause concern. Dr Findlay claims to have seen some cases where new high rise buildings have ended up with an apartment window that is within 5-6 metres of a large antenna, which is something that should at least be checked (Dr Findlay suggests that ideally you want to be about 15 metres or more from that big mobile antenna at the top of a mast).
Meteorologists have also raised concerns about 5G signals causing interference for their weather satellites, although this is more of a concern in the USA where there has been a conflict over the sharing of 5G and satellitelinks in the 1675-1680MHz band (BBC).
Separately the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA have previously raised concerns about the use of the 24GHz band for 5G, which they say could interfere with the detection of water vapour in the atmosphere (here). However regulators believe that the two should be able to coexist with careful management.
Another issue is one of health in the psychosomatic sense, which occurs when your mental health can end up causing your physical harm (e.g. stress). If you believe something is making you sick then you can actually end up making yourself sick by worrying about it too much. Since the fault is in you, then you yourself may struggle to recognise that without help.
The human brain makes us all exceptional pattern recognisers, which explains why some people see the face of Jesus in their morning toast or the way you can see familiar shapes in the clouds above (dragons etc.). The problem is this also makes us very good at associating coincidence with something entirely different, which is how conspiracy theories are often born (it probably doesn’t help that radio waves are invisible to the naked eye).
NOTE: Before publishing this article we asked a number of professionals with qualifications in related radio science and engineering, as well as past experience building such networks (none employed by mobile operators today, I hasten to add), to verify our description and understanding of the science. No issues were raised.
UPDATE 21st Feb 2020
Ofcom has just conducted some emissions tests of 5G bands at various busy UK sites (including 3-4GHz and also mmWave 60GHz), which found that all were operating safely and many times below the required standard level for public exposure (here).