Addressing the big bad 5G monster

By Dave Stapleton, Luke Toomey and Robert Geoghegan

In an era of alluring, ubiquitous online misinformation, falling down a rabbit hole and ending up on the weird side of YouTube again is inevitable and each evolution of mobile network technology has been no different.

5G has already begun to roll out across Ireland, despite questions and concerns being raised about the safety of this new technology.

Local councils across Ireland, including Wicklow, Sligo and Clare, have passed motions opposing the rollout of 5G; Sinn Fein put forward a now withdrawn action to halt its rollout until public safety could be guaranteed; many anti-5G campaign groups have been organised through social media and local petitions.

The majority of the concerns raised have been about the health risks 5G could pose; one central point of contention is that it will emit dangerous levels of radiation that cause cancer. It’s created a level of unrest not seen during the rollout of 4G and 3G, despite similar risks and concerns posed by these predecessors.

In contrast to this, Irish telecoms regulator, Comreg, recently published a report that suggests emissions from mobile operator transmitters are well within the limits set by global safety bodies. The Irish Cancer Society also published a guide that states there’s: “simply no evidence to support worrying about phones or masts when talking about cancer risk.”

So, who is right?

What is 5G?

5G networks promise faster speeds, more reliability and lower latency. Like its predecessors, 3G and 4G, it operates through radio signals over a range of frequency bands to transmit and communicate with larger transmitters with antennas mounted on masts or buildings.

These technologies continuously emit electromagnetic radiation that surrounds us, but this concept isn’t anything new. A whole range of current technologies; tv, radio and mobile phone signals to name a few, as well as natural sources like sunlight, already emit this type of radiation known as non-ionising.

Where 5G differs, is that it operates on millimeter wave frequencies, which travel shorter distances than the typical frequencies used by 4G or Wi-Fi. These millimeters will allow our mobile phones to not only access the internet at much faster speeds but also offer increased stability. However, the more powerful frequencies for 5G networks, emit more powerful radiation levels and need more transmitter masts to be built to allow the signal to travel.

Our current 4G connections are capable of operating on frequencies of about 2.5 GHz; meanwhile, 5G is capable of running on frequencies of up to 500 GHz. It’s no question that it will offer a huge leap forward in terms of connection speed, but the problem is, could all this extra energy be harmful to our health?

Health concerns in context

Health concerns surrounding the 5G conversation are complex. An article from the New York Times suggested that all fears of cancer-causing radiation being emitted from mobile phone technologies, can be linked back to a report conducted by consultant and physicist, Dr Bill P. Curry. His report argued that wireless technology in classrooms were “likely to be a serious health hazard”. Although this study was later debunked by the Professor of Radiology at New York University, the damage was largely done. The idea that mobile phone technologies emitted dangerous levels of radiation had entered into public discourse and continued to evolve into the monster that is now the 5G conspiracy.

Many local councils and anti-5G campaigners that argue these increased radiation emissions will be harmful to health, often refer to a report published in 2014 by the International Agency Research on Cancer (IARC). The IARC is a part of the World Health Organisation (WHO), who classified mobile phone signals to be “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in the report.

However, IARC applies that classification to situations where there is “limited evidence of carcinogenicity”.

“This category is used most commonly when the evidence of carcinogenicity is inadequate in humans and inadequate or limited in experimental animals. Limited evidence in experimental animals means that the available information suggests a carcinogenic effect but is not conclusive.”

This means there might be some weak correlation drawn between mobile phone signals and emissions – but that is a mountain away from a causal link being found. As such, the IARC’s approach is to maintain a level of caution to be on the safe side, just like how many products we buy contain warnings: “Warning: choking hazard” for example.

Some everyday products we consume, such as a cup of coffee, fall under this same classification of possibly carcinogenic. Even meat and alcohol fall under a higher category due to stronger evidence.

Ionising radiation

Both mobile phones and telecom antennas emit electromagnetic radiation, whether they’re set up for 4G or 5G. These emissions are classed as non-ionising radiation, which is considered to be at the lower end of the frequency spectrum. Most electrical gear produces this type of radiation, from microwave ovens to power lines.

The other form of radiation, ionising radiation, poses serious health risks to humans – things that fall under this category include x-rays or UV rays from the sun. Clearly, the health risks posed by these are much different than that of non-ionising radiation, as reported in Horizon Magazine, an EU research and innovation magazine published by the EU Commission.

Horizon Magazine’s report highlights the difficulty in finding a correlation of radiation emitted from wireless technology and cancer, showing that there was no increase of risk from mobile use. However, there are “‘suggestions of higher glioma [a type of tumor] rates, but errors and biases could not be ruled out, so no causal relationship could be established”.

Overall, one can’t say with absolute certainty that 5G doesn’t cause cancer, but it’s highly unlikely that it will, and everything will continue as usual.

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