Innovation and risks of 5G technology: everything you need to know
5G is the latest mobile phone technology. Because misleading information and fake news about potential risks for health are more popular than real facts, I decided to collect some verified information in the following paragraphs. [I’ll write it here: 5G and coronavirus pandemic are not connected: viruses do not travel through electromagnetic fields and pandemics existed already before cell phones were invented.]
A little information to introduce the topic
Electromagnetic fields (EMF) are invisible areas of energy, measured in hertz (Hz). Look at the picture below.
Longer wavelengths have lower frequency and they are less powerful in terms of energy, while shorter wavelengths have higher frequencies and are more powerful. Depending on the frequency, EMF release ionising or non-ionising radiations. The former includes ultraviolet rays, x-rays and gamma rays and their energy can damage cells and cause cancer. Non-ionising radiations have lower frequencies and bigger wavelengths and can be dangerous when they induce a thermal effect, which means that the amount of radiation absorbed provokes a temperature increase in the organism. It is instead debated if non-thermal effects exist. From now on, when I write about radiations, I refer exclusively to non-ionizing ones (used by cell phones and wireless networks).
What 5G means in practice
5G (or 5th Generation) is a technology introduced in 2019 that increases network performances by 10 times compared to 4G (the current system). Data will be delivered in less than a millisecond of delay (compared to 70 milliseconds of 4G) and it will be possible to download a high definition movie within a second, while 4G takes 10 minutes: download peak will reach 20 Gigabits/second, 20 times more than 4G. 5G will also boost development of novel technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, Internet of Things (in which machines communicate with other machines) and virtual reality and strengthen applications such as e-Health (telemedicine, remote surveillance, remote surgery). Another advantage is the anti-tracking and spoofing features, which protect the connection from data tracking and manipulation. To do this, 5G encrypts more data, resulting in less available to intercept, therefore protecting privacy and safety of data.
What’s new compared to previous technologies
To increase the performance, 5G exploits higher frequencies than previous technologies. Let’s take a look at the picture below.
Until 4G technology, usually mobiles exploited frequencies between 0,5 and 2,7 gigaHertz (GHz), which belong to the radio waves (with wavelength of tens of centimeters). 5G exploits also radiation at higher frequencies, which are called millimeter waves, because their wavelength is between 1 and 10 mm. Why this innovation? Because networks are overloaded and it is possible to decongest the traffic only by using a new band of the spectrum, never used for this purpose before.
5G exploits small cells, which are small base stations that can be placed every 250m in a city and work as a relay team to prevent delays in data transfer. Because 5G works with smaller waves than previous technology, cells and antennas can be smaller as well. A base station for 4G technology has usually 12 ports for antennas (4 for receivers and 8 for transmitters), while 5G base stations have approximately 100 ports, increasing the network capacity by 22 times or more.
Another feature of 5G technology is represented by beamforming antennas, which are able to focus the signal in a more efficient way to the receiving device, rather than spreading the signal in broad directions, as it is for previous technologies. This upgrade is needed because millimeter waves are easily blocked by objects and aiming the signal towards the receiver eliminates interferences.
This features allows devices to transmit and receive data at the same time on the same frequency, which is not possible with previous technologies. This advancement won’t be perceived by a person that uses basic applications on the smartphone, for which such technology is unnecessary, but it is essential for fields like eHealth, virtual reality and autonomous vehicles, which require massive data transfer.
Non- ionizing radiation and health risks
Non-ionizing radiations have the ability to penetrate the human body, causing a rise in temperature in the exposed tissue. The human body can adjust to small temperature increases in the same way as it does when performs sport activities. This is because the body can regulate its internal temperature. However, above a certain threshold (called thermal threshold), exposure to radiation and the accompanying temperature rise can provoke serious health effects, such as heat stroke and tissue damage (burns).
Dozens of studies have been performed on both cells and animals, and a broad range of radiation frequencies tested. Although results are contradictory, there seems to be a correlation between long-term exposure to radiations and biological systems. Therefore there is the possibility of oncological and non-oncological (reproductive, metabolic, neurological, microbiological) consequences, in some cases even below the thermal threshold.
It is striking that 83% of independently-funded studies observed such effects, while only 33% of industry-funded studies did. Why? Thanks to the experience with tobacco and fossil-fuel industries, it is easy to guess. In the 60s, tobacco executives were told by their own scientists about risks of smoking, as in the 80s fossil-fuel executives knew that burning gas, coal and oil would cause an environmental catastrophe, but still they preferred to hide the data and waited for decades to admit the risks. Also cell phone- and network-related industries have interest in spreading their technologies, regardless of people’s health.
To avoid such crimes (yes, to me they are) and safeguard people’s health, the World Health Organization (WHO) does surveillance and put restrictions on any activity that could harm people. In particular, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which belongs to the WHO and works independently from industries (to avoid conflicts of interest), is responsible for studying the risks of EMF on health and setting limitations to prevent them. In 1996, they started the “International EMF Project”, to investigate the effect of radiations between 0 and 300 GHz. Unfortunately, regulation of this project went beyond the rules, as it could “receive funding from any source through Royal Adelaide Hospital”, as stated by WHO in 2005. Bewildered, I looked for more recent information and I found a WHO report from 2017 (the 22nd International Advisory Committee Report) in which it is stated that “The EMF Project is solely funded by extra-budgetary funding from Member States”. This means that the initial conflict of interest was solved. The report highlights also a decrease in fundings, which could hamper future studies. About this, Martin Gledhill (representative of the Ministry of Health of New Zealand) commented: “When the EMF Project started in 1996 it had a well-defined set of objectives and was well funded from voluntary contributions. Those objectives are now mostly complete, and much less funding is available. Therefore this is a good time to get feedback from States on what they think the priorities of the EMF Project should be over the coming years, and whether they would be able to help fund it.”
In 2001, the WHO classified low-frequency EMF (cell phone radiations) as “possible” carcinogen, based on an epidemiological study conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) on child leukemia (even though a direct association was not proven). “Possible carcinogen” describes an agent with limited evidence of cancerogenicity. An example of a well known agent classified in the same category is coffee, which might increase the risk of kidney cancer, but protect from intestine cancer.
According to WHO, with current limitations, there is no evidence that cell phone radiations could cause thermal effects and/or are directly responsible for health problems.
5G and health risk
It is too early to estimate the effect of exposure to 5G radiations because few studies have been conducted so far. On one sides antennas are beamforming, leading to less environmental exposure, on the other hand the total electromagnetic field will be more intense because of the higher number of network components.
Professor Andrew Wood and his team provided guidelines for 5G safety regulations after modelling the absorption patterns of its radiations in human tissues. This is what he said to Nature in early 2019: “We believe the main biological effect of the electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones is a rise in temperature. There are also concerns that there could be more subtle effects, such as links between long-term exposure and certain types of cancer, but while there is some evidence from epidemiological and animal studies, these remain controversial.” The fact that 5G uses higher frequencies compared to 4G determines that “the depth of penetration into biological tissues goes down, so the skin and eyes, rather than the brain, become the main organs of health concern”.
According to some scientists, the issue of 5G is not the potency, but the pulse, which is the frequency to which the whole population will be exposed due to the dense network of antennas and the estimated billions of simultaneous connections. Studies show that pulsed EMF are more biologically active (therefore more dangerous) than non-pulsed EMF. Every wireless communication device communicates at least partially via pulsations, and the smarter the device, the more pulsations.
In 2017, more than 180 scientists and doctors from 36 countries (they became 268 in December 2019) signed a letter addressed to the European Union (EU), asking for independent research about the risks of 5G technology. In response, the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER) conducted an investigation to provide an independent update of the scientific evidence available, including the assessment of health risks that may be associated with exposure. No scientific justification was found to revise the limits (provided by the ICNIRP in 1998) set by Council Recommendation 1999/519/EC on the exposure of the general public to electromagnetic fields.
Anyway, ICNIRP conducted recent studies on 5G technology and this is the conclusion: “although the proportion of power that is absorbed superficially is larger, the ICNIRP (2020) restrictions have been set to ensure that the resultant peak spatial power will remain far lower than that required to adversely affect health. Accordingly, 5G exposures will not cause any harm providing that they adhere to the ICNIRP (2020) guidelines… It is important to note that, in terms of the 5G exposure levels measured so far, the ICNIRP (1998) guidelines would also provide protection for 5G technologies. However, as it is difficult to predict how new technologies will develop, ICNIRP (2020) has made a number of changes to ensure that new technologies such as 5G will not be able to cause harm, regardless of our current expectations. These changes include the addition of whole body average restrictions for frequencies >6 GHz, restrictions for brief (<6 minutes) exposures for frequencies >6 GHz, and the reduction of the averaging area for frequencies >6 GHz.”
I think it is appreciable the effort made by WHO to tighten regulation about 5G, to fulfill scientists concerns, demonstrating that people’s health is not threatened by massive investment of network- and cell phone-industries.
5G in the European Union
The “5G for Europe Action Plan” is a strategic initiative to make 5G a reality in the EU by the end of 2020 and achieve a “Gigabit society” by 2025. EU allowed 5G frequency bands at 700 MHz, 3,5 GHz and 26 GHz. Despite all the aforementioned advantages, 5G deployment will be very expensive, as it is estimated to cost 500 billion euro by 2025.
Despite the evident advantages and innovation and the severe guidelines set, people are concerned about 5G safety. It’s not surprising because it always happens when a new technology is introduced: when the Stockton-Darlington Railway opened in 1825, people feared that the human body wouldn’t survive train speed (30 miles/h) and could melt; then people feared the telephone, the radio, the television, the millenium bug. Innovation is always accompanied by fear. It’s true that studies show danger of non-ionizing radiations, but they are purposely made to find the safety threshold, in order to establish a limit that allows its use without risks.
The only debated point is if cell phone radiations cause non-thermal biological effects. Because lab tests provide discordant results, meaning that for one study that finds an effect there are others that don’t, the WHO (through the ICNIRP) set very stringent limitation, to overcome the concerns. In practice, established thresholds are so low that the issue of these potential non-thermal effects becomes not relevant anymore.
A last thing. According to the ICNIRP report from 2017, fundings for the EMF project are low and not sufficient to perform new studies. I believe it is moral obligation of governments that are deploying 5G technology to invest money as well in research about health safety, which should constantly be monitored. Let’s wait to read news about it.