5G — brave new world or a danger to our health?

Jul 1 · 5 min read

This is an opinion article written by William Hederman who was commissioned by Uplift in the Spring of 2019 to investigate some of the concerns about 5G.

Fifth-generation — or 5G — mobile phone technology is on the way, with the promise of a brave new world of ultra-high speed internet access, smart cities and an ‘Internet of Things’. But search for 5G online and you’ll find frightening warnings about dangers to human health.

Here in Ireland, the mainstream media has mostly ignored the issue, and the story has gone viral on social media. There are about 20 Irish anti-5G groups on Facebook, some with several thousand followers and a frenzy of stories about how the technology will give us cancer. Some of the material on these pages is informed by warnings from credible scientific sources, but there is also masses of misinformation and scaremongering, sometimes woven together with climate denial and conspiracy theories.

The resulting confusion and fear is being exploited by at least one far-right organisation, which has been hosting public meetings around the country, advertised as being about 5G. Conspiracy theories are a favoured recruiting tool of the far-right — once they identify people susceptible to these theories, they can feed them other right-wing, anti-migrant conspiracy theories.

The fears centre on the fact that 5G will involve a huge increase in the number of base stations (transmitters) — they will be on lampposts on every street — and also the possibility that higher frequency radio waves will be used than for 4G. We will, the argument goes, be “bathed” in a dangerous level of electromagnetic radiation.

Numerous social media posts — many with photos — claim to show 5G infrastructure already in place all over Ireland and healthy trees being felled in their thousands to make way for this roll-out.

The campaigning organisation Uplift has been contacted by so many people concerned about 5G — mainly from among its 200,000-strong membership — that it commissioned me to investigate the issue, to separate myth from fact, and scaremongering from science.

Establishing a couple of basic facts was straightforward. Firstly, 5G is not being rolled out here yet. Aside from a Vodafone trial site in Dublin’s docklands, no 5G networks have been deployed in Ireland, according to ComReg. This was corroborated privately by engineers working in the sector. The first commercial rollout of 5G in Ireland is due to begin in late 2019 or early 2020.

While there has been an alarming increase in tree-felling, there is no evidence this is related to 5G. Engineers and academics I spoke to said 5G would not require trees to be cut back. County councils have been felling trees for various reasons, including pressure from insurance companies.

The substantive question of whether 5G is a health threat is — not surprisingly — much harder to answer definitively. As the technology is new and largely untested, the scientific debate has focused on existing mobile phone technology and possible links to cancer. Thousands of studies have been conducted over several decades, but scientists disagree as to what this body of research shows.

In 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organisation, classified the radiation from mobile phones as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans. This is often cited, but it’s worth noting that this is a fairly low level of risk ­– “possible carcinogen”, which is IARC’s group 2b, also includes coffee, aloe vera, pickled vegetables and working as a dry cleaner.

Kevin McConway, professor of applied statistics at the UK’s Open University, and a specialist in medical sciences, summed up the view of many scientists when he was quoted recently as saying the jury is still out on the link between mobile phones and cancer. “My tentative conclusion from recently published research studies is that nothing has really changed since 2011… What we still have is rather weak evidence that there might be an association for long-term or heavy users.”

While fears about 5G are partly a revival of this older, unresolved debate, it is true 5G will be very different from what came before. There will be a huge number of base stations, but being so close together means they can transmit at a much lower power (i.e. wattage). Dr Conor Brennan of DCU’s School of Electronic Engineering likened this to “whispering from nearby, whereas early generation networks were like shouting from a distance”.

The other area of concern is the higher frequencies being talked about for 5G. In fact, the frequencies licensed by ComReg for 5G in Ireland are around 3.6 GHz (gigahertz), which “have been in use in Ireland for more than a decade for rural wireless broadband,” says Barry O’Donovan, an engineer working in this sector. Ronan Farrell, professor of electronic engineering at Maynooth University, says the higher frequency bands that people worry about — around 24–27 GHz and 71–86 GHz — have not yet been released for 5G usage in Ireland. “Apart from a few trials, I suspect any large-scale deployments [of those bands] in Ireland are at least five years away, if not more.”

What’s surprising is the level of official warnings about existing technology. For example, the position of Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer is that children and young people should use mobile phones for “essential purposes only”; and that all users should keep mobile phone use to a minimum.

The Irish Government is promoting 5G, but neither it, nor the private firms it is licensing to operate this technology, have provided much information to the public about what 5G will involve. This void has been filled by scaremongering and fake news.

As higher frequencies will not be used here in the next five years, there is time for the Government to commission research into 5G technology, for example a desk-based literature review by an independent academic. It is also an opportunity for the Government and phone companies to explain what 5G will involve. Ignoring or dismissing people’s fears may alienate them further, which risks pushing them towards the far right and their hate-fuelled conspiracy theories.

The science is not definitive on mobile phones and cancer, but limiting your usage is probably wise. There is, as yet, no strong evidence that 5G will introduce any added risk.

What we do know is that there are environmental threats that are seriously harming our health, but about which there is almost no outcry. Every year 1,150 people in Ireland die from inhaling polluted air, according to EPA estimates. As Prof Barry McMullin of DCU’s School of Electronic Engineering put it, “these known effects are on a scale and known with a confidence that completely dwarfs any reasonably conceivable issues with mobile phone radiation.”

For those who care about the environment and social justice, opposing 5G has the potential to be a huge distraction and diversion from very serious harms and injustices we know are real. The most obvious example is the climate crisis. While the science on mobile phones and human health is disputed, and the science on 5G is almost non-existent, the science on climate breakdown is as conclusive as it can be.

For full access to William Hederman’s report follow this link https://docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vQ1wZ5iztm-uwiicsgO9JQ4pzl6U3X-QDMgD01une3qVnY4j86VQSE2nRjUoGOCz0bMTnRkmOHRUIY6/pub


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