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As Bristol experiences 5G mobile phone technology for the first time and conspiracy theories abound, science journalist Andy Extance looks at the technology’s risks and benefits. 

Illustration: Louis Wood

‘5G’ technology brings exciting visions of a world where we can enter virtual reality through our mobile phones – but what if that risks our health in everyday reality? Some scientists are worried that the same waves with which fifth generation (5G) mobile networks bring users more data could be more harmful than previous generations.

A team including physicist Dr Paul Ben Ishai from Ariel University, an Israeli institution located in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, has shown that our sweat ducts could help skin absorb some 5G signals. “A lot of people are asking, ‘Shouldn’t we be checking this healthwise?’” Ben Ishai tells the Bristol Cable.

The prospect of 5G has reignited debate around the fuzzy connection between mobile phones and cancer. “Government and industry have brushed aside any health concerns and are simply pushing ahead with 5G as fast as they possibly can because of the amount of money involved,” Ben Ishai says. One YouTube video with nearly a million views even calls the network of 5G towers a ‘kill grid’. That’s clearly taking things too far – but surely claims suggesting possible increased risks demand greater attention.

The need for knowledge is pressing, with UK mobile operator Vodafone’s pre-commercial 5G trials having started in 2018, ahead of a full launch this year. The tests span 40 sites in Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and London. Its rival EE intends to launch its full 5G service in 2019, first in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester, with Bristol in the second wave. Three and O2 similarly plan to bring 5G to their UK networks by the end of 2019.

Like today’s most popular wireless communication systems, 5G transmits information on electromagnetic waves that deliver both benefits and potential harms. They have a lot in common with the waves that appear in a rope when you shake it. 5G technologies differ according to frequency, the number of times wave peaks travel through a certain point in a second. 5G frequencies involve millions of waves per second, for which the measurement is known as megahertz, or billions per second, known as gigahertz.

Scientists have been bitterly divided over whether mobile phones truly raise cancer risks or not

5G has three flavours, operating at low, medium and high frequencies. Low-frequency 5G is least well established, but in the UK it will broadcast at around 700 megahertz, using radio airwaves freed up from digital TV. That origin means that no-one should be any more worried about low-frequency 5G than existing mobile phone technologies. So you might be completely untroubled, a bit suspicious or firmly against – we’ll come back to that shortly.

Medium-frequency 5G operates at 3-6 gigahertz, slightly higher frequency than the existing mobile phone radio wave range, but again the risks should be similar. That’s what UK mobile phone firms are now rolling out, after the country auctioned the right to operate networks around 3.4 gigahertz and from 3.6–4 gigahertz. It means users can get data at 100 megabits per second (Mbps) rates or higher, five times faster than the UK’s average 4G speed.

High-frequency 5G will broadcast at over 24 gigahertz, transferring at least 1000Mbps. The wavelength – the distance between the peaks – of such waves is tens of millimetres, so they’re sometimes called millimetre-waves.

However, millimetre-waves don’t travel as well through buildings, and can be absorbed by plants and rain. One option 5G companies have to overcome this is ‘small cells’. These are basically little phone towers, scattered much more widely. While it’s a potentially expensive strategy, it’s one people are taking seriously. For example CableLabs, the company that determines how cable TV networks will work in the future, told me in 2017 that it intends to support small cells.

 

Skin in the game

Perhaps if you’re an enthusiast you can handle the idea of lots more boxes firing out a different type of mobile phone signal. If you’re at all nervous, your alarm bells are probably ringing. Whatever group you’re in, you should know that in 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified mobile phone radio waves as a possible cause of cancer. The decision, taken by 31 scientists, was based on a 40% increased risk of a type of brain cancer called glioma. The risk, though, came from long-term use of mobile phone handsets held close to the side of the head, rather than being associated with mobile phone towers in the neighbourhood.

And while that may still sound worrying, the absolute increase in risk is small. One study in Switzerland found that there were around 3.5 gliomas diagnosed per 100,000 people each year. Increasing that by 40% would raise the diagnosis rate to 4.9 gliomas diagnosed per 100,000 people each year.

Those relatively small numbers, along with evidence that IARC admitted was limited, makes it hard to be absolutely certain. And so, in the years since, scientists have been bitterly divided over whether mobile phones truly raise cancer risks or not. The researchers who think they do regularly accuse their opponents of being linked to the ‘industry loyal’ International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).

In one recent study, Martin Röösli from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute and a team of researchers combined the findings of studies including brain cancer data from 1993-2007. They didn’t see any increase in cancer diagnosis over this time. “If it would be as risky as alcohol or smoking, we would have detected the risk already by now,” Röösli says. “Thus, if there is a risk, it must be small or related to outcomes which are more difficult to measure.”

Cancer Research UK echoes this point. “Overall there’s no convincing evidence that mobile phones, including 5G phones, cause cancer in people,” says spokesperson Fiona Osgun. “But because mobile phones are a relatively recent invention it’s an area we continue to monitor. Despite mobile phone use skyrocketing there hasn’t been a comparable increase in the incidence of brain tumours in the UK in recent decades.”

Yet a team including David O. Carpenter from University at Albany, New York, reached different conclusions after reviewing existing evidence of health risks from electromagnetic waves in 2018. “The evidence shows clearly that excessive exposure increases risk of brain cancer, has effects on nervous system function and in some people results in the syndrome of electro-hypersensitivity,” Carpenter says.

And 5G’s high-frequency, millimetre-wave flavour brings new risks according to Paul Ben Ishai, who has studied the subject in a team led by Yuri Feldman at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Our sweat ducts are millimetre-scale coils, the perfect size, shape and composition to serve as antennae for millimetre-waves, they realised. Their work includes conducting experiments showing skin can absorb waves in the 75-170 gigahertz ranges. But there is still a ‘tail’ of absorption down to 20 gigahertz, Ben Ishai stresses, meaning the effect is relevant to high-frequency 5G. The Israeli team’s findings support similar earlier results from Queen Mary University of London scientists.

Ben Ishai notes that the high-frequency 5G signals will actually carry less power than existing mobile phone signals. However, he thinks we’ll be exposed to more 5G signals, with small cells ‘potentially in front of almost every block’. In the UK, telecoms giant BT is already calling for open access to lamp posts for just this reason. A lecture hall with 5G wi-fi might have five or six transmitters, Ben Ishai adds. This adds one more factor that should make us concerned: We can decide whether we use a phone, and how we use it. We may not even know if we’re near a small cell.

For now, at least, mobile operators aren’t yet planning to launch high-frequency 5G in Bristol or the UK more broadly. While that might frustrate early adopters itching to get promised data rates, it at least gives the rest of us more time to ask about the health issues it might bring.

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  • John Potter says:

    Since the introduction of the mobile/cell phone (a 2 way microwave radio) our exposure to microwave radiation has ramped up exponentially – one scientist estimated it as a factor of a quintillion times (that’s a 1 followed by 18 zeros) We’re now seeing the long term damage caused and unless we stop smart meters and the roll out of 5G MMW we will be exposed to an ever increasing level of EMR that will be ubiquitous and unavoidable. This in itself amounts to a human experiment in contravention of the Nuremberg Code. As with most rapid technological advances the military provided the impetus for invention and development – the internet and mobile communication both sprang from there. For the IoT (Internet of Things) to work requires increased data bandwidth and reduced latency – existing (harmful) tech. has been developed and ‘improved’ upon to accommodate this. Remember that the overriding imperative is profit, so researching a new direction is profit lost and to maximise profits further, military tech. has once again been appropriated – MMW millimetre wave as used in Directed Energy Weapons such as the US Denial of Access crowd control system. It is the use of MMW for autonomous vehicles which will cause the most harm to humans and other life. 5G phones are irrelevant, a diversion to keep people asleep while a ‘smart’ grid that can be used for our control is ‘deployed’ – they even use military terminology. There is nothing to stop research and development (with safety at the top of the list of requirements) of an alternative method of mobile communication to facilitate the IoT. The Telcos are motivated by greed alone and it is they who appear to be in control having captured all regulating bodies. Governments unfortunately consist of politicians (experts in nothing) who seem also to be motivated by greed, but they can be affected by us, possibly even educated. Our MPs are relying on the advice of PHE which gets their advice 2nd hand from one of those captured bodies. As more of us understand the existential threat that is presented by smart meters and 5G it is hoped that that knowledge will become so widespread as to bring a halt to the madness. https://www.5gspaceappeal.org/the-appeal This is an immediate existential threat to ALL life – it is scientific fact, not conjecture.

    • T says:

      Not a sufficient article – top comment is great, thanks Jon!
      Also: Huawei (boycott!) who conduct the social-credits system (social control, Black Mirror style) in China have been allowed by Theresa May to work on “non-core” elements of 5G, as was leaked by Tory MP’s this week. Please research more, we must resist this.

      • Amias Channer says:

        Individuals and governments of all nationalities contribute code that is used in 5g systems, this is common knowledge in this industry. The more diverse the range of people who see and audit the source code the better and safer it is.
        Stop reaching for conspiracies that don’t exist. It is ultimately racist to try to block Huwaei equipment because they are Chinese and you should be ashamed of yourselves.
        5g is far more efficient which means less energy which means less problems, the physics is fairly obvious.

        • Tony Mills says:

          If the very kindest analysis of the attitude toward deployment is that they really don’t care either way whether it is harmful or not, then it seems perfectly reasonable to be disparaging of the strategy. That’s the most pleasant possible analysis—absolute indifference. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest conspiracy. It only means that parties are gathering to agree things between themselves. It is an experiment, absolutely, and this cannot be denied. I didn’t spot any racism in John’s comment regarding Huawaei.

  • david says:

    This article appeared in the current issue of the Epoch Times. Despite industry propaganda, the recent National Toxicology Program Study found: “Clear Evidence of Cancer.” Studies that find little or no harm are industry funded studies. Dr. Henry Lai of the University of Washington found that 75% of industry funded studies found no harm while the reverse is true for independently funded studies. Among the relevant scientific community studying the biological effects of microwave radiation there is no debate anymore. The debate is kept alive by industry that is using the Tobacco industry playbook of creating doubt. Their mantras are “no convincing evidence” “needs more study” “inconsistent evidence” etc. do your own research and avoid high profile agencies that have industry shills on their boards.
    5G Is The ‘Stupidest Idea’ in the History of the World, Says Professor Emeritus From WSU
    The Epoch Times
    The 5G technology will entail using much higher frequencies than our … The appeal states: “RF radiation has been proven harmful for humans and the … EPA and National Cancer Institute have done nothing to protect US citizens.

  • Patrick Thornton says:

    Those scientists who maintain mobile phones are safe are all funded by the Telecommunications industry. Independent research proves without any doubt that this is not the case.

  • Ooherrr says:

    Top commenter Jon is correct; 5G is for driverless cars, so higher frequencies and saturating coverage which is untested application and against human rights.
    Also, Huawei are involved. These are the social-credits-in-China company. Page1 Headline: “May engulfed in Leak row over top-secret Huawei talks” Page2… “The NSC meeting reportedly agreed that Huawei could work on “non-core” elements of the 5G network.” From Thurs 25 April 2019 Evening Standard.

  • Amias Channer says:

    With every new generation of wireless technology we get an enhancement in spread spectrum performance. This means that at any given point in time or space within the transmission there will be less energy than the previous generation. Just talking about frequencies is misleading because other charecteristics of the wave are just as important.

  • KT PRESCOTT says:

    great thread. lets keep up the conversation of SAFETY before profit before we accept this Trojan gift. has anyone seen the profit made annually by Big Telco. this could explain a lot.
    and yes industry backed studies almost always conclude the safety, whereas as independent studies find the opposite. So before our local governments accept 5G in their communities, their needs to be transparent conversation and consultation with the people they represent and protect. First do no harm, should prevail.
    Governments need to allow independent doctors, scientists, people who are experts on military frequency weaponry and who have worked with any kind of frequency ie radar, into the communites to educate us and the local governments. And start from there. ask questions like who insures Big Telco?
    do we really want all these small cell telco towers everywhere and thinly disguised masts?
    not only for potential harmfulness but now our cities are starting to look really ugly- you look up-UGH its so..nightmarish.

  • Bill Kitchen says:

    As a radio amateur I can use a large range of frequencies. At 10 GHz early on we used Gunn Diodes to generate 0.01 Watts and cautioned not to look into the dish at close range because of the radiation causing possible damage to our eyes. This was in the 70’s. My high frequency aerials are outdoors and yards away from me. I wouldn’t use an indoor aerial in the same room either because of the higher level of R.F. radiation close to me.
    Now 5G uses 24 to 90 GHz with many more phone towers because of the shorter range of these frequencies.
    I have never had a mobile phone because I wouldn’t use my radio transmitters this close to my head. While a mobile phone I read is 0.6 Watts or 2 Watts when at a poor location compared to my radio transmitter of 5 Watts I still don’t want radio frequencies this close to my head. What do people think a mobile phone is? It’s an R.F. transmitter.
    People might experience immediate problems such as headaches which seem to be one problem with Smart Meters as shown on the internet. The long term effects of exposure to close R.F. we won’t know for perhaps 10/20/30 years.
    Bill, G4GHB.

  • Naví P. says:

    Thanks for the article and the comments… what I’d like to know is WHERE in Bristol these are being erected, installed, or built. I’ve heard that it’s been installed near UWE and that some bad consequences have resulted. I cannot, however, track down the professor who is travelling the UK lecturing about this.

    Any information would be much appreciated!

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