While the wireless carriers, equipment suppliers, and component suppliers have cranked up the 5G marketing hype, there is some resistance to deploying the technology because of health concerns. There is some credible evidence in the science regarding health effects resulting from exposure to RF energy.
In 2019, Larry Desjardin looked at the science in a series I edited. Up to that time Desjardin found nothing that clearly proves or disproves that RF radiation from cell phones increases health risks. Even so, it did get me thinking about using my phone on speaker when appropriate (there’s also the convenience factor of being able to place the phone on a table and keep working).
Recently, the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) claimed “clear evidence” that exposure to RF radiation causes tumors in the hearts of male rats. The report doesn’t state which frequencies led to that conclusion. Tests were performed at frequencies from 700 MHz to 2700 MHz. That frequency range covers frequencies used by cell phones and Wi-Fi equipment. The exact frequencies vary by carrier, with T-Mobile going down to 600 MHz, Sprint and AT&T using 700 MHz. AT&T and Verizon add mmWave frequencies to their 5G coverage, which opens a new reason for study.
In 2014, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said “At this time we do not have the science to link health problems to cell phone use.” As of December 4, 2017, the FDA concluded that there is a health risk from exposure to radiofrequency radiation (RFR) and recommended that cellphone users keep their phones away from their heads whenever possible, using hands-free equipment such as earbuds with microphones or using phones in speaker mode. Even so, the CDC at that time concluded. “Since there are no known risks from exposure to RF emissions from cell phones, there is no reason to believe that hands-free kits reduce risks. Hands-free kits can be used for convenience and comfort. They are also required by law in many states if you want to use your phone while driving.” I recently purchased my first vehicle with Bluetooth, providing hands-free operation.
Microwave News reported in January that NTP former associate head John Bucher has chosen to take these precautions when using cell phones, saying that he and others official have informed the publication through emails.
Remember that these reports are based on studies conducted in the FR1 Frequency band (below 6 GHz). To gain the much higher data rates promised from 5G, AT&T and Verizon are installing small cells covering at mmWave frequencies—starting at around 24 GHz. NTP scientist Michael Wyde, in an interview for an NTP newsletter, noted that mmWave signals don’t penetrate our bodies to nearly the depth of microwaves and the lower frequencies of 600 MHz and 700 MHz. Remember that these frequencies were once used by commercial broadcast TV stations; many of us have been exposed to RF energy at these frequencies all our lives. Granted, the transmitters are generally far away unless you live close to the transmitters. Even then, people have lived close to these high-power transmitters for years.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, published in August 2019 Risks to Health and Well-Being From Radio-Frequency Radiation Emitted by Cell Phones and Other Wireless Devices. Although the report cites studies that produce conflicting evidence, it does point to studies concluding adverse effects on men who keep cell phones in their pockets.
Because some 5G carriers are using mmWave frequencies (FR2), they need to install many small cells to get enough high-bandwidth coverage. The NLM-NIH report mentions that more studies in the FR2 band are needed. It states, “The range and magnitude of potential impacts of 5G technologies are under-researched, although important biological outcomes have been reported with millimeter wavelength exposure. These include oxidative stress and altered gene expression, effects on skin and systemic effects such as on immune function.”
While we don’t have nearly the number of studies regarding exposure to RF at mmWave frequencies, that hasn’t stopped some people from protesting small cells. Here’s where things get dicey and the conspiracy theories begin. If you search the web, you’ll find plenty of sites claiming that these small cells with expose us to EM radiation in far greater quantities that we have today. Indeed, some go so far as to claim that 5G and other forms of EM radiation are really about population control. According to the conspiracy theories, exposure to this EM radiation will make us sterile. Granted, there is some such evidence, but it seems hardly the intent of deploying small cells at huge cost. Other conspiracy theories claim that the mmWave signals contain subliminal messages designed to influence how we think.
As far as I can tell, these conspiracy theories use little or no scientific evidence to back them up. Indeed, they don’t even discuss beamforming or beam steering, which concentrates signal power at the user. If they did, they’d probably claim that we will be hit with even more intense EM radiation. I’m not convinced. Why? Because if signals are targeted at the use, it means that EM energy is going only where and when its needed as opposed to in all directions around a cell all the time. When approached by The Daily Beast for 5G Conspiracy Theorists Say Faster Cellphones Will Cook Them Alive, I argued that we might, in the aggregate, get hit by less EM radiation than we do today.
While we should not turn this into a political column, I do have to wonder if the reports of clear evidence relating cell phone use to health risks will be muted. Hopefully not. The NLM-NIH report does state “Unfortunately, in some countries, notably the US, scientific evidence of the potential hazards of RFR has been largely dismissed.” We need science and engineering to be above the fray.