Convenience, speed, instant gratification… That’s what we want from the Internet. The more we have it, the more we need it. As existing networks become overworked, providers look to the next big technology solution: 5G. So it’s natural to wonder, what are the health effects of 5G?
What is 5G?
You’ve heard all the talk about self-driving cars, smart homes and appliances that manage themselves. The broader term for this is the Internet of Things (IoT), and for it to become a reality, wireless networks have to evolve to meet increasing data demands.
Wireless companies tout fifth generation (5G) networks as the answer. They promise greater capacity, a higher density of users, faster download speeds, and more reliable connectivity than our current 4G networks.
Interestingly, 5G’s aim is not to bring connectivity to those who lack it. “5G will not be providing solutions to reach out to the lowest strata of society that remains to be “connected”. So do not expect 5G to help widen the user base,” says an article in the Economic Times. “The essence of 5G is about creating a mesh between humans and things.”
How 5G Works
The technology that will drive 5G is difficult to describe or define; as of right now, there are actually no final standards for 5G. It remains a work in progress.
Despite this, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has already approved the spectrum for 5G and several companies are rolling out test networks.
What we do know is that 5G networks are being designed around a suite of brand-new technologies. To understand the potential health implications of 5G, let’s take a look at three of them.
4G networks use radio waves to broadcast data. But the radio spectrum is already crammed full of signals. 5G seeks to use a whole new spectrum — that of millimeter waves — to allow for more traffic. Think of it like building a second highway when the first one gets too packed with cars.
Millimeter waves get their name because they’re much shorter than radio waves at only 1 to 10mm in length. Shorter waves mean these are higher frequency, which means they transmit more energy.
There’s a problem with these higher energy millimeter waves, though. Because they’re so short, they’re easily blocked or absorbed by obstacles like buildings, trees, or rain.
Blanket an entire city with thousands of miniature cell phone base stations. That way you can never be far away from a strong signal.
These so-called “small cells” get installed every 250 meters or so, forming a dense and pervasive network.
One example of this is AT&T’s “Project AirGig” which mounts thousands of low-cost plastic antennas on power lines. AirGig is already in test phase, and once complete would mean that vast networks of power lines (which surround us everywhere we go) will become constant beacons for 5G millimeter wave radiation.
Some 4G base stations already use a technology called MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output). This wireless system uses multiple transmitters so it can send and receive more data at once. Standard MIMO involves four to eight antennae. The new Massive MIMO for 5G involves approximately 100 antennas.
This increases the capacity of mobile networks by a factor of 22— or more. And logic follows that their EMR levels will increase in proportionally with the increased capacity.
How Safe are the Health Effects of 5G Technologies?
The short answer is: we don’t know.
And that’s the biggest problem.
We should evaluate the health effects of 5G before rolling out the technology, but that’s just not happening. This, despite numerous studies demonstrating that caution is needed.
Effects of Human Skin
One study lead by Dr. Yuri D Feldman at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that human sweat ducts act as an array of tiny, helix-shaped antennas when exposed to millimeter waves.
The findings suggest that human skin not only absorbs but actually amplifies the radiation from millimeter wave networks.
According to Dr. Feldman and team, “the full ramifications of what these findings represent in the human condition are still very unclear”. They add that further study is “poignant now because of the interest of industry to exploit precisely this signal range (100 GHz – 400 GHz) for communications and possible consequent side effects on the public.”
Even so, wireless companies are developing and deploying millimeter wave networks without any in-depth or long-term studies on health.
Weaponized Millimeter Waves
As far back as the 1980s, scientists began testing whether “millimeter wave energy could create a repel effect that might serve as a non-lethal weapon.” This led to the creation of the Active Denial System (ADS).
According to the US Department of Defense the ADS “generates a focused and very directional millimeter-wave radio frequency beam” that penetrates the skin’s surface and causes an intense stinging or burning. It is used for purposes like crowd control because “within seconds, an individual feels an intense heating sensation that stops when the transmitter is shut off or when the individual moves out of the beam.”
Mobile networks operate in a different way to ADS weapons. ADS beams are strong and directional, and cause serious injury if exposure is too high or too long. It prompts the question, though: what happens when we’re exposed to many, constant, low-level beams long term?
Other Health Effects of 5G
Other studies highlight additional potential health effects of 5G. For example, an article by Dr. Cindy Russell in Santa Clara Medical Association’s The Bulletin references a number of studies linking 5G millimeter wavelengths to heart problems, birth defects, decreased antibiotic sensitivity, cataracts, and immune system suppression. Dr. Russell calls strongly for the development of safety regulations and thorough pre-market testing of 5G technologies.
With cell phone use already linked to cancer, reproductive issues and numerous other negative health effects, the explosive increase in signals that 5G will bring about is a serious concern.
5G would likely mean millions of antennas posted not just in cities but along power lines and street corners in residential neighborhoods.
Until the health effects are fully understood, it’s worth taking precautions to shield your body from the effects of electromagnetic radiation, especially as 5G networks advance.