The excited buzz from the tech world is steadily growing: the arrival of 5G is nearly upon us, with major telecommunication companies planning to launch the first ever networks over the course of 2018. Equally important, though, is what we haven’t been hearing about: the unknown effects that 5G EMF radiation emissions will have on our health, and the absence of any attempts by the wireless industry to discover what these may be. In short, is 5G safe?
If you aren’t very familiar with 5G, here are the basics. Short for “fifth-generation”, 5G is the next evolution of wireless networks. Roughly every 10 years, a new set of standards for wireless communication is released by the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance. In part, this is driven by consumer demand–we have high expectations for what our mobile devices should be able to do. We want consistent access to the digital world, and we want it to be fast. A new generation of wireless is born when said expectations exceed what is possible within the current one.
The majority of Americans have become accustomed to 4G’s speedy capabilities: at the end of 2016, over 60 percent of all wireless connections were supported by 4G-LTE networks. Now that we’ve experienced the instant gratification of a high-quality internet connection in our pockets, finding ourselves in an area with patchy coverage is a recipe for exasperation.
And if even faster speeds can be reached, more data transferred, more possibilities of convenience placed in our palms, it’s easy to guess that most of us would say, “Well, why not?”. Upgrading to services we didn’t even know we needed and then wondering how we got by without them seems to be the trend of the digital era.
How will 5G Change How We Use Technology?
So how is 5G superior to 4G? The main differences are what you’d expect: greater speed (10 to 100 times faster rates of data transfer) and greater responsiveness (the time between clicking a link and the page actually loading; 5G would ideally reduce this waiting period to around a millisecond).
5G’s other selling point is its ability to support more connections, bringing other objects beyond phones and computers into the fold of wireless technology. This is called the ‘Internet of Things’ or ‘IoT ‘ for short, in which everything from vehicles to thermostats to household appliances will be able to communicate with one another (and we’ll be able to communicate with many of these objects remotely, probably through apps).
Applications of the IoT will be very diverse in scope and scale: hospitals, power plants, warehouses, and even entire cities will be transformed. It is estimated that by 2020, 31 billion objects around the world will be a part of the IoT–and by 2025, that number will grow to over 75 billion. The goal in creating this massive network of “smart” objects is greater convenience, greater control, greater efficiency, etc.
To the average consumer, this probably all sounds exciting, until one becomes aware of the frightening fact that 5G network EMF radiation emissions have in no way whatsoever been tested for short or long-term effects on human health. Considering what we know now about the effects of 4G and WiFi, this is a major oversight.
Higher Frequencies Broadcasting from Every Street Corner
Like the wireless generations before it, 5G will need its own frequency bands to occupy as it travels across cities everywhere. This is because the frequency bands of current 4G networks simply don’t have room to accommodate the enormous amounts of data 5G will be transferring around.
Typically, each generation has occupied a higher frequency band than its predecessor. 4G and all those before it fell within frequencies of 300 megahertz to 3 gigahertz. 5G will be the first generation to utilize millimeter waves, with much higher frequencies ranging from 30 to 300 gigahertz
Millimeter waves have a major downside. They don’t travel as far as lower frequency waves–they are unable to pass through buildings, and are absorbed by trees, earth’s atmosphere, and even the uppermost layers of human skin. To get around this issue, telecom companies will install small cells (which essentially are short range cellular antennas) in huge numbers.
There are a few different types of small cells, all of which have different broadcast ranges. The shortest range type, femtocells, reach less than 10 meters, and the longest range type, microcells, broadcast to roughly 2 kilometers. Due to limited area that small cells can provide coverage for, they will need to be installed at a much higher density – around one per every 10 to 12 households. So, if you aren’t living near a source of cellular transmission now, you almost certainly will live and work near several once 5G becomes widely available. Of course, this will make it all but impossible to avoid sources of EMF radiation
A Quiet Controversy
The push for 5G networks to go live highlights the astounding amount of disregard that corporate interest can have for the wellbeing of people and the planet. Though for years now, scientific studies and research have increasingly shown that exposure to EMF radiation has a long list of harmful health effects, telecom companies and the FCC (the government agency that is supposed to be looking out for public safety by regulating wireless communication) have not only failed to pay attention; they are now deliberately doing everything they can to minimize findings that cast wireless technology in a negative light.
The ways in which 5G will vastly improve our lives are proclaimed at every opportunity, with not a word mentioned on the possibility of ill effects, or any commitment to making sure the technology is safe. Worse, it is clear that the highest priority of those pushing the 5G technology, is making sure that nothing else can get in the way, while leaving the “regulating” to telecoms. Take it from the chairman of the FCC Tom Wheeler at a July 2016 press conference:
“Rule number one is that the technology should drive the policy rather than the policy drive the technology… Unlike some countries, we do not believe we should spend the next couple of years studying what 5G should be, how it should operate, and how to allocate spectrum based on those assumptions. […] Turning innovators loose is far preferable to expecting committees and regulators to define the future. We won’t wait for the standards to be first developed in the sometimes arduous standards-setting process or in a government-led activity. Instead, we will make ample spectrum available and then rely on a private sector-led process for producing technical standards best suited for those frequencies and use cases.”
This effectively demonstrates the FCC’s perspective on how important 5G is. It mirrors the agency’s quiet efforts to create legislature that blocks local governments from restricting the implementation of 5G (essentially eliminating oversight and taking away the rights of citizens to choose otherwise). This will include streamlining the approval of small cell installation.
Another major shortcoming in ensuring 5G’s safety is that the FCC standards for safe levels of EMF exposure have long been obsolete. For one, the guidelines claim that the main threat posed by EMF radiation to the human body is through the heating of tissues. But it has long been proven that ill-effects can occur at EMF radiation levels well below what it would take to create changes in temperature. The guidelines also focus only on acute exposure, ignoring the possibility that chronic, lower levels of exposure are equally (if not more so) likely to cause harm (and overlooking the fact that the latter more closely reflects how we interact with wireless technology today). These standards also assume that sources of EMFs like laptops are used at least 8 inches away from our bodies, yet most people have never been told that distance between our bodies and our devices is important; who do you know that doesn’t keep their phone in their pocket? See more on how the FCC guidelines miss the mark here.
Possible Health Risks of 5G
Scientists around the world are working to warn others of the risk associated with EMFs at the levels 5G would create, and are appealing to government officials to use their power to block the corporate-favoring legislation mentioned above.
This letter, written by a biochemistry professor and internationally known scientist on the subject of EMF health effects (Dr. Martin Pall), discusses the dangers of 5G; some key excerpts are listed below:
“EMFs act by activating channels in the membrane that surrounds each of our cells, called voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCCs). The EMFs put forces on the voltage sensor that controls the VGCCs of about 7.2 million times greater than the forces on other charged groups in our cells. This is why weak EMFs have such large biological effects on the cells of our bodies.
Pulsed EMFs are, in most cases, more biologically active and therefore more dangerous than are non-pulsed (continuous wave) EMFs. All cordless communication devices communicate via pulsations, because it is the pulsations that carry the information communicated.
5G will be much more active in activating the VGCCs and producing health impacts because of its rapid absorption by materials in the body, because of its very rapid pulsations and because of the huge number antennae they are planning to put up, at least 200 times the number of antennae from all current cell phone towers. What this means is that the impacts on the outer one to two inches of our bodies will be massive.”
Among the major ill-effects we will likely see some time after the introduction of 5G, according to Dr. Pall, include increases in blindness, hearing loss, male infertility, skin cancers, thyroid issues, and nervous system dysfunction.
Another letter, this one signed by over 180 doctors and scientists and written last year, urged the European Union to take some key actions, including:
- Temporarily halting the rollout of 5G networks until they can be properly tested and ensured safe for humans (especially more vulnerable demographics, like children) and the environment.
- Informing people of the health risks associated with wireless communication and promoting safer use.
- Creating an independent, unbiased agency of EMF scientists to draw up new standards for EMF exposure and monitor/study the effects of EMR as time goes on.
- Keeping the wireless industry from lobbying for/influencing/regulating the expansion of wireless technology.
- Switching to favor wired digital communication over wireless.
The fact that all of these guidelines aren’t already in place shows the situation we are blindly walking into on a global scale. The fact that experts in the field are so concerned about the threat 5G poses while telecoms and the FCC are only concerned with getting the technology out as fast as possible does not bode well for the future health of our species and planet. If dozens of studies have already demonstrated that there is a link between EMF exposure (at the levels emitted by 4G networks) and negative health outcomes, what sort of effects will we see once we are immersed in much higher frequencies, coming from countless, nearby sources at all hours of the day?
Outlook on 5G’s Arrival
As of late 2017, China has launched 5G pilot programs in six major cities, with plans to commercialize the network by 2020. In the states, Verizon began field tests back in 2016, and plans to launch the first residential 5G networks in 5 cities over the course of this year. Likewise, in 2018 AT&T plans to launch mobile 5G networks in 12 cities.
One thing is certain: whether or not ubiquitous hyperconnectivity of our devices and data is actually going to improve our lives in a significant way, it will serve the purpose of continuing to bind every aspect of our lives to technology, and likely at the expense of our long-term health. Whether we want it or not, the next generation of wireless is fast approaching, with virtually nothing standing between us and the widespread implementation of this powerful and untested technology. To quote Tom Wheeler, “The 5G revolution will touch all corners of this country.”