The fifth generation of mobile internet, 5G, which has recently started operating in some cities in the UK, has raised several questions about possible risks of radiation to health.
The new technology – which has been running since April in South Koreaand parts of the United States – is still under testing in Brazil, where it should be available by 2023 .
But do these health concerns have any foundation?
What’s different about 5G?
Like previous mobile technologies, 5G networks rely on signals carried by radio waves – part of the electromagnetic spectrum – transmitted between an antenna and their cell phone.
We are surrounded all the time by electromagnetic radiation – from radio and television signals, as well as from a number of technologies, including smartphones, and from natural sources such as sunlight.
The 5G uses higher frequency waves than previous mobile networks, allowing more devices to have access to the internet at the same time and at a faster speed.
These waves travel shorter distances through urban spaces, so 5G networks require more transmitting antennas than previous technologies, positioned closer to ground level.
What are the concerns?
The electromagnetic radiation used by all mobile technologies has led some people to worry about the potential increase in health risks, including certain types of cancer.
In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that “no adverse health effects were found due to the use of mobile phones”.
However, the WHO with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified all radiofrequency radiation (of which cellular signals are part) as “possibly carcinogenic.”
It has been inserted in this category because “there is evidence that is not conclusive that exposure can cause cancer in humans.”
Eating canned vegetables and using powdered talc, for example, is rated at the same level of risk. Already the consumption of alcoholic beverages and the consumption of processed meats is placed in a greater risk category.
A toxicology report released in 2018 by the US Department of Health, quoted by those who are fearful of the new technology, has shown that male rats exposed to high doses of radiofrequency radiation have developed a type of cancerous tumor in the heart.
For this study, the rat’s body was exposed to radiation from cell phones for nine hours a day every day for two years, even before they were born.
No association with cancer was identified in the case of the analyzed females or mice. It was also observed that the rats exposed to the radiation lived longer than the control group.
A scientist who participated in the study said that “the exposure used in the studies can not be directly compared to the exposure that humans are subjected to when using cell phones,” even compared to those who use a lot.
Frank De Vocht, who advises the government on cell phone safety, says that “while some research suggests a statistical possibility of raising the risk of cancer to those who use much [cell] so far the evidence of a causal relationship is not convincing enough to suggest the need for preventive action. “
There is, however, a group of doctors and scientists who have written to the European Union calling for the suspension of the launch of the 5G network.
Radio waves are non-ionizing
The radio waveband – used in cell phone networks – is non-ionizing, “which means it does not have enough energy to separate DNA and cause cell damage,” says researcher David Robert Grimes, a specialist in cancer.
At the highest levels of the electromagnetic spectrum – that is, well above the frequencies used by mobile phones – there are clear risks of prolonged exposure to health.
The sun’s ultraviolet rays fall into this category that is harmful to health and can lead, for example, to skin cancer.
There are strict limits to exposure to even higher energy radiation levels – such as x-rays and gamma rays – that can cause harmful effects on the human body.
“People are understandably concerned about the possibility of raising the risk of cancer but it is crucial to note that radio waves are much less strong than the light we are exposed to every day,” says Grimes.
“There is no reliable evidence,” he says, “that cell phones or wireless networks cause health problems.”
Should we be concerned about the antennas?
5G technology requires a series of new base stations – that is, antennas that transmit and receive signals from cell phones.
But once more transmitters are installed, essentially each can operate at lower power levels than 4G technology, which means that the level of radiation exposure of 5G antennas will be lower.
The UK government guidelines on mobile base stations predict that radiofrequency fields in places normally accessible to the public are well below recommended levels.
And the risks of heating?
Part of the 5G spectrum allowed by international guidelines is within the microwave range.
The microwaves generate heat in the objects through which they pass.
However, at the levels used by 5G (and previous mobile technologies), the effects of heating are not harmful, explains Professor Rodney Croft, a consultant to the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).
“The maximum level of radiofrequency that anyone can be exposed by 5G (or any other signal in community areas in general) is so small that no increase in temperature has been observed so far.”
Limits on exposure
The UK government says that “while there may be a small increase in overall exposure to radio waves when 5G is introduced into the existing network, overall exposure is expected to remain low.”
The frequency range of the 5G signals to be introduced is within the non-ionizing band of the electromagnetic spectrum and well below those considered harmful by ICNIRP.
“The exposure that 5G is going to generate has been analyzed in depth by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, and the restrictions have been set well below the lower 5G level of radiofrequency that has been shown to be harmful,” Croft points out.
The World Health Organization states that exposure to electromagnetic frequencies below the limits recommended by the committee guidelines does not appear to have any known health consequences.