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Is 5G safe?

The opinions expressed by scientists and doctors on both sides of the 5G debate are as polarised as those of partisans in a highly charged political contest. The controversy over the safety of something that only partially exists has become an effort to understand how science and technology shape our lives.

“Of course 5G is safe,” says Dr Robert Adair, a professor emeritus at Yale University and the author of The Physics of Baseball. “Everything in life is dangerous. Walking across the street is dangerous. But I do it because the benefits are huge.”

The potential for gathering massive amounts of data from every cell phone user and Internet-connected device has enormous economic value to society, he says.

“I can’t think of any scientific discovery that has been more unexpected, surprising and important than wireless communication,” he told VOA via Skype from his home in New Haven, Connecticut. “It’s transformed every aspect of our economy, jobs markets and ways to live.” He contends there are already thousands of studies that demonstrate the safety of devices and household appliances.

But scientist Martin Blank, PhD, a former consultant to the Federal Communications Commission’s Office of Engineering and Technology for electromagnetic field exposure who served on a panel that advised the World Health Organization (WHO) about wireless radiation, disagrees. That position is based on decades of research he conducted while working in industry and education. He says he was fired from New York University in 2009 after he published papers about what he calls “unethical human experimentation.” As a result, some special interest groups have begun to label him as an enemy of the industry at home and abroad.

“There are no studies that show 5G is safe,” Dr Blank told VOA via Skype from his office at Columbia University in New York. He said the short-term studies that do exist on 5G – which mostly focus on how much electromagnetic energy is absorbed by the body – “are worthless” because they don’t assess long-term health impacts such as cancer or other diseases.

“The preponderance of the evidence is that there are significant non-thermal biological effects,” he said, arguing that wireless radiation and some forms of electromagnetic waves can alter gene expression and accelerate free radical activity in human tissues. The result, according to Blank, could be an increase in cancers and neurological problems such as Alzheimer’s.

There are no known direct methods for measuring the health risks associated with exposure to radiofrequency energy from low-frequency heating of tissue (mechanisms include dielectric heating, heat conduction, and electromagnetic induction).

According to Dr Blank, 5G will introduce millimetre waves that are far more potent than the radiofrequency energy of the current 4G cell. He said many countries now use lower frequencies such as those between 200 and 600 megahertz for mobile networks because they can carry more data. But those wavelengths have less penetration and interference resistance than higher frequencies. High-frequency millimetre wave frequencies have also been used in microwave weapons but never before for communication networks.

5g-is-it-safe

To help understand how 5G works, think of it like a flashlight with a broad beam instead of a narrow beam. Millimetre waves have wavelengths around the size of an atom, so they interact directly with body tissue and won’t be blocked by obstacles in their path like walls and trees.

“We will bathe our bodies in this radiation,” says Dr Blank, especially if we carry devices like smartwatches that work through clothing and allow people to connect wireless every time they touch something metal (a doorknob or water pipe for example). “That’s a disaster.”

Dr Martin Blank: “There are no studies that show 5G is safe.” (courtesy of Columbia)

Conflicting views?

For now, these two competing viewpoints may simply represent another scientific debate about values and priorities between industry and non-industry scientists.

The wireless industry is very well organized, says Dr Martin L. Pall, PhD, professor emeritus of biochemistry and basic medical sciences at Washington State University in Pullman. “Their main effort has been to try to convince the public that there’s no evidence that this radiation is dangerous,” he told VOA via Skype from his home in Montana. But Pall claims mainstream publications such as Science magazine have refused to publish many of his own papers on the subject for the past 15 years because they disagree with his conclusions about a connection between electromagnetism and disease.

“My concern is that we are being asked to rush into deploying 5G without knowing for sure whether it will be harmful or not,” Dr Pall added.

Digital native Dr Adair – who is also a professor of public health at the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut – disagrees with this view. He told VOA via Skype from his office about the growing pains that accompany any new technology such as 5G and claims there’s been an ongoing effort to “overhype” electromagnetic radiation concerns since the 1950s. According to Adair, if there were serious concerns about EMFs, all power lines would have had to be removed years ago because they present much greater exposure than does cell phone use.

“The support for 5G research is very strong among university scientists,” said Dr Adair, who created the Center for Environmental Awareness and Technology Transfer (CEATT) at the Yale School of Public Health to provide a home for this kind of research. “In my opinion, there is not any substantial controversy among researchers regarding 5G,” he added.

“There are thousands and thousands and thousands of studies that show electromagnetic radiation is safe,” Dr Adair added, pointing out that the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified EMFs as a possible carcinogen since 2011 only because it says it’s still looking into the data for further conclusions. The WHO classifies cell phones in the same category as-funded group of scientists as a possible carcinogen based on studies that have found associations between cell phone use and glioma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Both the WHO and the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) say more research is needed to confirm these findings.

Dr Adair also pointed out that 5G will operate at higher frequencies than previous generations of wireless technology but will not deliver any appreciable more power density because of the inverse square law – in other words, radiated energy dissipates by the square of the distance from its source. This means all wireless signals are inherently less damaging than older wired technologies such as analog television or landline phones because they deliver lower power levels over greater distances compared to wired devices closer to our bodies.

Dr Pall disagrees, however. “The power levels are not a good measure,” he said. “It’s a matter of dose and the type of radiation.” Dr Adair agrees with industry officials that 5G will not be in constant use because its millimetre waves have difficulty penetrating buildings. Instead, it is expected to largely rely on smaller cell base stations – called small cells – placed every 250 meters (820 feet) or so for residential neighbourhoods and every 10 blocks for cities, which would reduce exposure compared to previous generations of wireless technology based on microwaves that require larger antennas further from users.

“We won’t need as many base stations [in areas] with more people,” says Gupta, adding the “patient zero” is still unknown about how best to prevent cancer after it’s been caused by either genetic problems or one too many X-rays in a doctor’s office to investigate an illness or injury.

“It is important to make sure we find out who that first person affected by 5G turns out to be,” he said. “Only when and if this happens will we know for sure.”

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Jason Kearney

Jason Kearney

Author

Jason is the head technician and founder of SECURE A COM. He has worked in the industry since 1998. Working on Telstra infrastructure projects, install and maintenance contracts, and now runs SECURE A COM servicing  B2B and B2C customers.