Is 5G technology bad for our health?

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As 5G wireless technology is slowly making its way across the globe, many government agencies and organizations advise that there is no reason to be alarmed about the effects of radiofrequency waves on our health. But some experts strongly disagree.

The term 5G refers to the fifth generation of mobile technology. With promises of faster browsing, streaming, and download speeds, as well as better connectivity, 5G may seem like a natural evolution for our increasingly tech-reliant society.

But beyond allowing us to stream the latest movies, 5G has been designed to increase capacity and reduce latency, which is the time that it takes for devices to communicate with each other.

For integrated applications, such as robotics, self-driving cars, and medical devices, these changes will play a big part in how quickly we adopt technology into our everyday lives.

The mainstay of 5G technology will be the use of higher-frequency bandwidths, right across the radiofrequency spectrum.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission has auctioned off the first bandwidth — 28 gigahertz (GHz) — that will form the 5G network, with higher bandwidth auctions scheduled for later this year.

But what does 5G have to do with our health?

In this Spotlight, we look at what electromagnetic radiation is, how it can impact our health, the controversy surrounding radiofrequency networks, and what this means for the advent of 5G technology.

An electromagnetic field (EMF) is a field of energy that results from electromagnetic radiation, a form of energy that occurs as a result of the flow of electricity.

Electric fields exist wherever there are power lines or outlets, whether the electricity is switched on or not. Magnetic fields are created only when electric currents flow. Together, these produce EMFs.

Electromagnetic radiation exists as a spectrum of different wavelengths and frequencies, which are measured in hertz (Hz). This term denotes the number of cycles per second.

Power lines operate between 50 and 60 Hz, which is at the lower end of the spectrum. These low-frequency waves, together with radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light, and some of the ultraviolet spectrum — which take us into the megahertz (MHz), GHz, and terahertz spectra — make up what is known as nonionizing radiation.

Above this lie the petahertz and exahertz spectra, which include X-rays and gamma rays. These are types of ionizing radiation, which mean that they carry sufficient energy to break apart molecules and cause significant damage to the human body.

Radiofrequency EMFs (RF-EMFs) include all wavelengths from 30 kilohertz to 300 GHz.

For the general public, exposure to RF-EMFs is mostly from handheld devices, such as cell phones and tablets, as well as from cell phone base stations, medical applications, and TV antennas.

The most well-established biological effect of RF-EMFs is heating. High doses of RF-EMFs can lead to a rise in the temperature of the exposed tissues, leading to burns and other damage.

But mobile devices emit RF-EMFs at low levels. Whether this is a cause for concern is a matter of ongoing debate, reignited by the arrival of 5G.

In 2011, 30 international scientists, who are part of the working group of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), met to assess the risk of developing cancer as a result of exposure to RF-EMFs.

The working group published a summary of their findings in The Lancet Oncology.

The scientists looked at one cohort study and five case-control studies in humans, each of which was designed to investigate whether there is a link between cell phone use and glioma, a cancer of the central nervous system.

The team concluded that, based on studies of the highest quality, “A causal interpretation between mobile phone RF-EMF exposure and glioma is possible.” Smaller studies supported a similar conclusion for acoustic neuroma, but the evidence was not convincing for other types of cancer.

The team also looked at over 40 studies that had used rats and mice.

In view of the limited evidence in humans and experimental animals, the working group classified RF-EMFs as “possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B).” “This evaluation was supported by a large majority of working group members,” they write in the paper.

For comparison, Group 2B also contains aloe vera whole leaf extract, gasoline engine exhaust fumes, and pickled vegetables, as well as drugs like progesterone-only contraceptives, oxazepam, and sulfasalazine.