Everything seems to come with a health warning these days. Bacon, clingfilm, microfibres, even coffee. When mobile phones became mainstream, now and then scare stories popped up in the press suggesting possible cancer risks for heavy users. But there’s little evidence to back them up; Cancer Research UK says it’s ‘unlikely’ mobiles, or the current telecoms infrastructure, increase the risk of cancer. And let’s face it, almost all of us are attached to our phones for large portions of the day and have been to an increasing degree for the last two decades without suffering any ill effects – unless you count an addiction to social media.
But what about 5G? Just launched in six UK cities, 5G promises big things: not just films downloaded in seconds, but also no more congestion issues and huge capacity to enable billions of potential IOT devices. 5G is all set to empower a new, smarter world with possibilities for innovation that we can currently only dream of.
However, some doctors and scientists have issued warnings, because of the increase in involuntary exposure of people, animals and plants to radio frequency electromagnetic fields. At the time of writing, 244 doctors and scientists from 36 countries have signed an appeal to the European Union, saying ‘“We, the undersigned scientists, recommend a moratorium on the roll-out of the fifth generation, 5G, for telecommunication until potential hazards for human health and the environment have been fully investigated by scientists independent from industry.” The issue with 5G is that it uses higher frequencies, at 24-90 gigahertz, than the 1-5 gigahertz used by its predecessors, and that some people believe that the higher the frequency, the higher its potential for causing damage to humans, animals and plants too. These higher frequencies are still classed as ‘non-ionising’, i.e. the general consensus is that they cannot damage our DNA, but for some, further investigation is required to be absolutely sure.
The EU have replied twice to their appeals, commenting “Digital technologies and mobile communication technologies, including high speed internet, will be the backbone of Europe's future economy…At the same time, all citizens deserve appropriate protection against electromagnetic fields from all types of sources including from wireless devices…Please be assured that the Commission will pursue scrutiny of the independent scientific evidence available to ensure the highest health protection of our citizens.” They also commented in 2017 that “The strict and safe exposure limits for electromagnetic fields recommended at EU level apply for all frequency bands currently envisaged for 5G.”
Despite these assurances, in the meantime a number of cities and countries around the world have expressed concerns, some calling for more studies. A handful of Swiss cities have announced moratoriums on 5G until more is known and others in America and Italy are exercising caution. If 5G were found to come with a health warning it would be devastating, not just for the telecoms industry but for the wider future of smart devices and human innovation.
The widespread view is that any potential risk is so slight as to be almost negligible. Writing in Forbes, consumer tech expert Simon Rockman says that the National Register of RF Workers (whose annual ‘“Update on Current Knowledge of RF Safety” he attended) believes radio frequencies to be safe as long as exposure is kept within defined limits. The register is centred around the health interests of workers, though it should be mentioned that it’s sponsored by industry tech, infrastructure and RF players. And although 5G will mean the building of hundreds of thousands of new transmitters, as Dr Steve Novella, an assistant professor of neurology at Yale says “You go out in the sun, and you’re bathed in electromagnetic radiation that’s far greater than these 5G cell towers.” Public Health England’s position is that there is no convincing evidence of harm as long as levels are within the guidelines from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).
Of course it’s worth mentioning that The World Health Organization classified RF radiation as ‘Possibly carcinogenic to humans’ in 2011. But before you panic and put down your iPhone, that lands it in the same category as caffeine. And there’s no sign of any of us giving up our coffee – or our smartphone – addiction just yet…