Whether you like it or not, 5G is coming.
And it’s promising blisteringly fast download speeds – up to 1 gigabyte per second – which is almost as astonishing as the amount of negative publicity it’s getting.
Opponents of 5G have made all sorts of alarming claims. It’s killing birds! It’s a weapon used by the military! It’s going to trigger a cancer epidemic!
None of these claims are particularly plausible, and most of them are downright far-fetched.
To understand why, we have to go back to the electromagnetic spectrum.
Where does 5G sit on the electromagnetic spectrum?
All mobile phones – including 5G ones – use high-frequency radio waves, which are a type of electromagnetic wave.
Radio waves sit at the low-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Right down the bottom end of this spectrum is the extremely low frequency band (ELF), which runs from 3 to 30 hertz – meaning in one second, these electromagnetic waves go up and down between 3 and 30 times.
And because you can send information only each time the wave goes up and down, the ELF band can send data only very slowly.
But these low-frequency waves can penetrate the ground beneath our feet, and even the oceans.
The higher the wave frequency, the more information can be sent each second, but the signal is also more easily blocked by solid stuff like the concrete in buildings.
Our current 4G mobile phone networks run at frequencies between 700 megahertz and a few gigahertz (one gigahertz is a billion cycles per second).
The new 5G network uses two main bands: One under 6 gigahertz, plus another one above 24 gigahertz. This is fast, for radio waves, but it’s still a much lower frequency than visible light, which comes in at hundreds of thousands of gigahertz.
So the 5G network will send data to your phone faster than 3G or 4G, but the signal will also be more easily blocked by buildings and other inconvenient obstacles.
Ionising and non-ionising radiation
One reason for the health concerns about 5G is the fact that some electromagnetic waves can damage atoms.
This is called ionising radiation because it can knock electrons off an atom, making it an ion. Waves like this are well known to cause cancer.
In the electromagnetic spectrum, there’s a barrier between ionising radiation and non-ionising radiation: It’s the colour violet. Anything with a higher frequency than violet light can cause cancer.
Ultraviolet or UV light is the weakest ionising radiation – at around 30 million gigahertz – and we know it has enough energy to knock the electrons out of atoms because it causes skin cancers.
X-rays and gamma rays have higher frequencies and carry even more energy, so if they come in contact with our cells they can also cause cancer.
But the energy from visible light, AM and FM radio, TV, microwaves, mobile phones and power lines is just too low to damage atoms.
And despite many hundreds of studies over the past half century, we have never been able to prove that any of these non-ionising waves can cause cancer – and this applies to 5G radiation too.
Wait, didn’t some rats get cancer?
You might have heard about two major studies by the National Institutes of Health in the US relating to non-ionising radiation and cancer. They are cited nearly every time cancer and mobile phones comes up.
But interpreting their results isn’t as straightforward as some media reports might have you think.
One study found the male rats that were exposed to the radiation actually lived longer than the non-exposed rats, but the male rats did have more cancers of the heart and brain. The female rats showed no clear difference.
The second study found the male mice that were exposed to radiation also lived longer than the control mice that were not exposed, and again, the male mice that were irradiated had higher levels of cancers.
But in this study, the female irradiated mice had higher levels of malignant lymphomas.
That might sound like evidence that non-ionising radiation can cause cancer after all. But when you look at the statistics, the numbers of rodents with cancer were very low – all in the single digits.
Those very small numbers are a very big problem, when it comes to interpreting the findings.
Neurologist Dr Steven Novella from Yale University said the low numbers and the inconsistency in the results were important: “It limits the applicability of the results, and suggests they may be just random noise or due to some confounding factor.”
However, this study is often held up as evidence clinching the case for mobile phone radiation causing cancer in humans, and reducing our life expectancy – which is strange, when some of the animals exposed to radiation actually lived longer that the controls.
Who’s spreading 5G fake news?
So where else is this fear-mongering news about mobile phones and 5G coming from?
According to the New York Times, a major source of disinformation about the 5G network has been the Russian TV network Russia Today (RT), which is available worldwide.
RT claims that the 5G network poses risks including “brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumours and Alzheimer’s disease”.
There is zero scientific proof for these claims – especially considering that the 5G network has been running only in a very few locations, and only since the beginning of 2019.
RT has run segments with titles including “A Dangerous Experiment on Humanity”, “5G Apocalypse”, and “Could 5G Put More Kids At Risk For Cancer?”.
But where does RT get its data from? It’s certainly not from science.
Guardian reporter Tim Dowling wrote that fringe opinions take centre stage at RT.
“Reporting is routinely bolstered by testimony from experts you have never heard of, representing institutions you have never heard of,” he wrote.
Even more surprising is that while RT claims there are massive health risks from the 5G network, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a very big promoter of the 5G network.
Mr Putin said: “The challenge for the upcoming years is to organise universal access to high-speed internet, to start operation [of] the fifth-generation communication systems.”
But RT is not alone is pushing the anti-5G agenda. The same folk who specialise in anti-technology, anti-sunscreen and anti-vaccine beliefs can be found peddling 5G hysteria.
They’ll sell you machines that generate “good” electromagnetic radiation to protect you from “bad” electromagnetic radiation – at a cost of a few hundred dollars.
If that’s not your cup of tea, they recommend various supplements claiming to improve our health and “raise our vibrations”.
Just what frequency they raise our vibrations to is not clear. Let’s hope it’s in the non-ionising range.
To those with 5G concerns
Underlying some people’s concerned reasoning about 5G is a solid nugget of truth – that we have been lied to in the past, and we have been wrong about things.
Big Oil, Big Tobacco and Big Pharma have all had their moments.
As a result, there has been a loss of trust in various authorities, which unfortunately has spread to scientists.
Yet oddly, science is one of the most trustworthy of all the fields of human endeavour.
In terms of cancer, it’s worth considering that if non-ionising radiation does turn out to be carcinogenic – and this has still not been proven – it will almost certainly be a less effective carcinogen than sunlight and alcohol, which are proven cancer-causing agents that we interact with on a daily basis.
That then turns the conversation to how to classify and rank carcinogens, which is another story entirely.
And let’s not forget, as Dr Sarah Loughran has pointed out, that anxiety has consequences: Fear of 5G may in fact be more dangerous than 5G itself.
Lastly, for those who were wondering: I am not being paid to tell “stories” about 5G, by Big Telephone or anybody else.
Nor – as I have previously been accused – am I on the payroll of “Big Globe”, seeking to increase sales of Globes of the World by explaining that our planet is a sphere.
To fully understand some of the complexities in the modern world, one needs a combination of critical thinking, broad background knowledge, some specific knowledge, and much reading of reputable sources – which includes being able to recognise a reputable source.
This is what I try to do every day and I wish you luck doing the same.
Oh, and the Chinese telecom giant Huawei is already researching 6G mobile technology.
I’ll deal with the hysteria around that when it arrives.