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5G Health Concerns: Should We Be Worried?

October 23, 2019

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5G brings lightning-fast internet and is said to be revolutionary for powering new technologies like self-driving cars, advanced augmented, and virtual reality experiences. 

“With a massive amount of antennas—tens to hundreds of antennas at each base station—you can serve many different users at the same time, increasing the data rate,” Harish Krishnaswamy said, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University, New York. At the Columbia high-Speed and Millimeter-wave IC (COSMIC) lab, Krishnaswamy and his team designed chips that enable both millimeter-wave and MIMO technologies. “Millimeter-wave and massive MIMO are the two biggest technologies 5G will use to deliver higher data rates and lower latency we expect to see.”

But, of course, like all things, 5G networks might have a couple of downsides. One of the biggest questions is: How will 5G affect our health and, implicitly, the future of humankind?

The deployment of new 5G networks, which requires many more small cell towers to be placed much closer to where people live, work and go to school, is raising plenty of concerns.

“There is some evidence from epidemiological studies and other research on the biological effects that electromagnetic radiation could cause cancer,” said Jonathan Samet, a pulmonary physician, and epidemiologist and the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health. “But the whole body of evidence is not strong.”

Radiowave radiation has raised many concerns in the past as well. “The actual conspiracy theories are kind of rehashed from 4G and everything else before,” says David Grimes, a physicist and science writer. High-voltage power lines and mobile phones, he says, already caused health concerns in the late 1980s and 90s, when they were linked with brain tumors and other cancers – claims that have been extensively researched and debunked by scientists over the last few decades.

In 2016, the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) publicized findings of studies examining the effects of non-ionizing radiation on rats and mice. Several populations establish a control group, with males exposed to either CDMA or GSM cellphone radiation, and females exposed to GSM cellphone radiation. That’s 2G rather than modern 4G. Researchers applied the following exposure protocol to test the animals:

  • Rats and mice were exposed to GSM or CDMA signals with whole-body exposures of zero to 15 W/kg (rats were given a lower dose)
  • Exposure was initiated in utero
  • All exposures applied 7 days a week, for about 9 hours a day
  • A single, common group of unexposed rats or mice of each sex served as controls

After two years, several rats and mice exposed to this study exhibited tumors. However, these results mostly concerned full-body exposure rather than partial-body exposure for humans. There also weren’t adequate controls for exposure uniformity, making it tough to tell exactly how much exposure each rat received.

Dr. Steve Novella, an assistant professor of neurology at Yale highlights that people often get concerned about radiation. “Using the term radiation is misleading because people think of nuclear weapons—they think of ionizing radiation that can cause damage. It can kill cells. It can cause DNA mutations.” But since non-ionizing radiation doesn’t cause DNA damage or tissue damage, Novella affirms that most concern about cell phone radiofrequency radiation is misplaced. “There’s no known mechanism for most forms of non-ionizing radiation to even have a biological effect,” he says.

In 2011, the World Health Organization classified radiofrequency radiation as a Group 2B agent, which is defined as “Possibly carcinogenic to humans.” This, too, is nuanced. Says Novella, “you have to look at all the other things they classify as a possible carcinogen. They put it in the same class as things like caffeine. That is such a weak standard that it means nothing. It’s like saying ‘everything causes cancer.’”

There are many opinions regarding the way that 5G affects the human body and no proven evidence, which leads to misinformation and false presumptions. To combat this, scientists need to continue their research and debunk the myths. 5G will indeed revolutionize the digital world as we know it, but it is also necessary to build a reliable, secure technology that doesn’t threaten our future.