Lately we’ve heard a lot of remarks like this: “5G harms human health“, “5G kills bees“,”5G causes cancer“, “overwhelming evidence says 5G is dangerous” and “we have no evidence this technology is safe.” Such statements are often being repeated in opposition to new UK mobile masts, but are they right and should we be concerned. The issue has become particularly prominent of late, not least because some anti-5G campaign groups have managed to gain traction by causing several UK local authorities to take a position against future 5G mobile broadband deployments (e.g. Totnes in Devon, Glastonbury and Frome in Somerset).
Sometimes it’s best to answer concerns like this by first covering the basics of how mobile, and wireless communication signals in general (aka – radio waves), actually work. Such signals form one part of what’s known as the Electromagnetic Spectrum, which reflects a range of frequencies of electromagnetic (EM) radiation and their respective wavelengths / photon energies. Sadly many people don’t fully appreciate what this is or how it works, which is perhaps partly reflected by the way that the anti-5G campaigns concentrate so much effort on one technology. However the issues they raise are by no means isolated to a specific radio technology and thus denigrating 5G so specifically tends to confuse the argument.
What is EM Radiation?
EM radiation is essentially energy that travels and spreads out as it goes, at different wavelengths (think ripples on the surface of an ocean), although you could also say that it reflects different kinds of light (most of them are invisible to human eyes but some animals and cameras can see more than we do). How we perceive or experience this radiation depends a lot on the wavelength, distance and energy behind it. For example, the Sun produces all of the different kinds of electromagnetic radiation, although 99% of its rays are in the form of visible light, ultraviolet and infrared (the latter is also known as heat). The heat (thermal energy) you feel on your face from the sun on a cold winter’s morning is mostly infrared and so too is that heat you feel from somebody else’s body when in close proximity, while ultraviolet is what gives your skin a tan (or burn, if your exposure is too high) and visible light is obviously what you see. Without all this heat and light we would not exist.
NOTE: When an object absorbs any kind of light it heats up as it now has more energy than before, but often this effect is so small that you can’t feel it unless it’s very energetic.
We are quite simply bathed in a soup of all the different types of EM radiation (light), which is a part of our natural environment and life on this planet thrives alongside it. Similarly humans have also found ways of manipulating this for various different purposes, although some of it can be harmful, particularly when wavelengths become very short and massively more powerful (e.g. ionizing gamma rays from exposed nuclear power cores). Take note that the illustration above is not to scale as the differences are huge (e.g. ultraviolet frequencies are 10,000 times higher than sunlight and sunlight is 1,000 times higher than microwaves etc.).
Ionizing vs Non-Ionozing EM Radiation
Science generally classifies everything from radio waves, microwaves, infrared and visible light as non-ionising radiation, which means it doesn’t normally have enough energy (low energy) to knock electrons off the atoms that it interacts with and won’t do damage, such as breaking chemical bonds in molecules (i.e. it’s not usually harmful to humans). By comparison ultraviolet (only the top end from around 3000 Terahertz), X-rays and gamma rays are all classified as ionising radiation, which is more of a health hazard to humans because it involves changing the basic makeup of atoms in cells (e.g. the DNA molecules inside of cells). However it normally takes a higher dosage of ionising radiation before any negative health impacts start to show. For example, your skin will burn from ultraviolet if you spend too long in the sun without protection, but a thin layer of sun cream is all it takes to prevent this and brief expose is not really a concern. Likewise it would take a fair few body scans or flights abroad before you’d need to worry about X-rays. Crucially the above is not to say that the various different types of non-ionising radiation cannot still cause you harm, although officially the only recognised health effect is heating and, judging by our inbox, this is where a lot of people tend to get very confused.
Dr Richard Findlay, Society for Radiological Protection’s EMF and Optical Radiation Committee, said: “There are two types of radiation. Ionising is the kind that you get in hospital when you have radiotherapy. Non-ionising radiation is what comes out of phone masts and TV towers. People get confused about adverse health effects. Cancer is not a recognised health effect as a result of exposure from masts, for example. The only health effect is heating. In terms of a 25 metre mast, that is far enough away from people who are at ground level.”
The other big problem here is that the news media often talks about “radiation” in general terms as a negative, which is unhelpful without some definition as to its type and energy or dosage level. For example, Gamma rays are always harmful but we are naturally surrounded by them, except our daily dosage is minuscule (i.e. not particularly harmful at natural levels) and not even remotely like the colossal dosage levels of an exposed nuclear power core (e.g. see Sky’s Chernobyl TV services).
Wait.. So Are Radio Waves Safe or Not?
When we talk about radio waves here we’re generally covering non-ionizing wireless communication systems like Bluetooth, WiFi, Fixed Wireless Links and Mobile (2G to 5G). However ISPreview.co.uk has had plenty of emails from people who suggest that 5G is dangerous because, for example, a military weapon system may be designed using some of the same frequencies (this highlights a fundamental confusion in understanding).
Common Radio Bands for Wi-Fi and Mobile Wi-Fi = 2.4GHz, 5GHz, 6GHz Mobile (2G – 5G) = 700MHz, 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2.1GHz, 2.3 GHz, 2.6GHz, 3-4GHz NOTE: 5G mostly uses the same bands as existing UK mobile networks above, although in the future it may harness 24-26GHz or higher (aka – millimeter Waves [mmW]).
The key consideration, in health terms, for any technology using radio spectrum (not just 5G) is the combination with power and distance. This is a bit like how Microwave Ovens (2.45GHz) use the same sort of band as WiFi but obviously they cook (i.e. HEAT) food by using lots of power (800 Watts+) and focusing it at ultra-short-range (a few centimetres). Such ovens are shielded for safety but a small bit of their radiation will escape during use, which is why they tell you not to touch the oven when it’s running. Obviously you’d need to have a truly horrific death-wish to put your head inside a Microwave Oven while it’s running, although such devices are designed not to work if the door is ever left open. By comparison WiFi only uses a minuscule fraction of that power (often only a few hundred milliwatts but busy multi-band devices can gobble c.1-2 Watts) to send a signal over an extremely wide area (e.g. your entire house or flat), while most of us sit many metres or even miles away from the source of similar Mobile signals. WiFi signals are thus very weak (energy wise) and soon degrade over a few tens of metres to the point of being unusable (especially if you have a few rooms / walls between you and the router – these reflect and absorb some of the signal, weakening it).
NOTE: At any given moment your body will only be interacting with a tiny portion of the aforementioned WiFi signal as its widely distributed (i.e. the energy you receive is less than the source output). Confusing these two types of scenario (Microwave Oven vs WiFi or Mobile) is a bit like equating petrol to water because both are clear liquids, even though they’re both radically different in their use, impact upon human health and the environment. As such a military weapon that uses tens or hundreds of Kilowatts of power to focus on a narrow target area within a few close feet or metres via a common radio band is thus completely different to the wide coverage and extremely low power of WiFi or mobile signals.
NOTE: Devices like some baby monitors, DECT phones, TVs, wireless alarms and even some household lights may emit more powerful EM radiation within your home than Mobile.
This is largely why the World Health Organisation (WHO) has long said there is no proven risk of cancer from mobile phone use, while at the same time classifying all radio frequency radiation (not only mobile or WiFi etc.) as “possibly carcinogenic” (i.e. the potential exists to cause harm but you’d generally need to put lots of power behind the signal and use it in a deliberately harmful way) and hence the confusion that a lot of people have. Crucially the Mobile and WiFi networks that are all deployed today must conform to strict scientifically agreed rules for power and signal. As stated earlier the only known health effect in humans from such signals is heating and for the most part this is so weak as to be imperceivable (note: if you feel heat from your mobile or router when in close proximity then that’s just infrared from the chipset and NOT WiFi or Mobile!).
Margot James MP, Former Digital Minster, said: “A considerable amount of research has been carried out on radio waves and Public Health England have concluded that exposures of radio waves to the public are well within the international health-related guideline levels that are used in the UK.”
Matt Warman MP, UK Digital Minister, said: “[The] government will support work to bust health myths over 5G, which WHO say poses the same risk as talcum powder and pickled vegetables. There is no credible evidence to back up concerns and huge evidence for the economic benefit of gigabit-capable networks.”
An Ofcom spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk: “We work with Public Health England and take their recommendations into account in how we manage airwaves. They have found no evidence that 5G poses any new health risks compared to previous mobile technologies. There are international guidelines to ensure mobile airwaves are transmitted safely, and the airwaves that will be used for 5G have been used safely in telecoms and other services for many years. We will continue to work with health bodies and monitor any developments to the evidence in this area.
Check out the NHS and Public Heath England for some more guidance. Speaking of which, radio waves are generally so weak that even lower frequency digital TV signals (usually operating from upwards of 470MHz) can easily be disrupted by changes in atmospheric temperature and pressure (i.e. different weather systems), which may cause such signals to be refracted or bounce off an inversion overhead. One of the reasons for mentioning TV signals here is that some such radio spectrum bands have been in used by mobile operators for years. The 800MHz band (currently used for 4G) was previously harnessed for analogue TV services, while the soon-to-be-auctioned 700MHz band for 5G was until recently used by digital TV signals. We’ve lived with these TV bands for more than 70 years, often at a higher power levels than mobile signals, and yet they haven’t wiped us all out. The same is true for many other bands with different uses.