5G Network a Public Health Hazard?
The new generation of mobile internet has a lot to offer, but at the same time it raises questions about possible health effects.
This article dates from August 2019, but is current again because telecom operator Proximus is today launching the superfast mobile network 5G in 30 cities and municipalities.
‘ Russians are not laboratory rats whose health I trade for profit,’ said Brussels Minister of the Environment Céline Fremault (CDH) at the beginning of 2019. In those words, she blocked the increase in the Brussels radiation standards that 5G should allow. An increase that she saw as harmful to our health.
Fremault got a lot of headwind for her decision. As a successor to the current 4G standard, mobile internet via 5G promises to be much faster, according to some projections up to a hundred times. To give you an idea of how fast that is: with a 5G connection, you can download a full season of the Netflix series La Casa de Papel on your smartphone or tablet in a few minutes.
The attractive technology therefore seems difficult to stop. Countries such as the US, South Korea and Switzerland are now rolling out the first 5G networks, the first 5G smartphones are coming onto the market and 5G infrastructure is a hot topic in the trade war between the US and China.
Yet Fremault also struck a sensitive chord with her statement. There are some concerns about what impact 5G has on our health, and are in line with previous concerns about the radiation effects our mobile devices may or may not have. For example, more than two hundred scientists – including a large number of non-specialists and academics – have already signed a petition calling for a moratorium on 5G. And in Switzerland, anti-5G demonstrations attracted several thousand protesters.
Do the opponents of the new technology rely on anecdotal and baseless statements, or is their concern justified? Eos asked experts for answers to four recurring questions.
What health effect does radiation from mobile devices have?
Devices with 5G produce the same type of radiation as devices with the older 2G, 3G and 4G. It concerns so-called non-ionizing radiation. That radiation type is lower on the spectrum than the ionizing radiation from X-rays or radioactive radiation and does not have the same health effects.
“People do report health complaints,” says Remco Westerink, neurotoxicologist at Utrecht University. In various studies, subjects complain of nausea and headache. ‘But we cannot definitively link those complaints to the electromagnetic fields of telecommunications equipment. Which does not mean that the complaints are not there. It remains a difficult file. “
Some studies further suggest that electromagnetic radiation is a carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization’s cancer agency, labeled electromagnetic radiation as “potentially carcinogenic.” The question is how alarming that classification is exactly. The leaves of the aloe vera plant are also labeled as ‘possibly carcinogenic’, just like working in a dry cleaner. For hairdressers, working life would be even more risky, as many of the dyes and chemicals they use are classified as ‘likely carcinogenic’. We have been experiencing radiation from mobile communications for more than twenty years. The number of brain tumors did not rise during that period
Here, too, an association does not necessarily mean that there is a causal link between radiation and cancer. “We did not yet find a biological mechanism of action that would explain why electromagnetic radiation would cause cancer,” says Westerink. In other epidemiological studies, researchers see no use in mobile devices. Westerink: ‘We have been experiencing radiation from mobile communication for more than twenty years. During that period, the number of brain tumors remained roughly the same. ‘
More frequent headaches
Which is not to say that scientists leave it at that. ‘We are currently conducting a large-scale prospective study with cooperation from, among others, Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, Denmark and France,’ says Hans Kromhout (Utrecht University), chairman of the radiation fields committee of the Dutch Superior Health Council. ‘We follow 290,000 people in Europe, including 90,000 Dutch people. We analyze their mobile phone usage and the health effects they may or may not report. We consult the participants again every five years. ”
They compare certain health indicators with data from the operators on how individuals use their mobile phones. ‘We don’t have the cancer data yet, but we did see that when individuals used the mobile phone more often, they also reported headaches more often. Only that turned out not to be related to the radio frequency radiation. ‘
The study examined 21,049 Swedes and 3,120 Finns how the time they phoned correlates with headaches, sinusitis and hearing problems. Participants who telephoned more than 276 minutes per week were slightly more likely to experience weekly headaches.
At the same time, respondents who used devices with the GSM standard (2G) had no higher risk of headaches than respondents who used the UMTS standard (3G). However, GSM emits more radiation. This indicates that the reported headache is not due to electromagnetic radiation. The researchers also found no link between telephone use and sinusitis and hearing problems.
5G emits the same non-ionizing radiation as 2G, 3G and 4G. It has no greater impact on health in that area.
How does 5G affect radiation levels?
Scientists are not quite sure how 5G will affect current radiation levels. The uncertainty has a lot to do with how 5G is structured. Namely, 5G is more of an internationally established standard that imposes standards (including a minimum download speed) than one clear technology.
Within this standard, technology companies and researchers work to achieve higher speeds. They do this by combining a large number of sub-technologies.
‘You can build a 5G network in different ways,’ says Wout Joseph, who is conducting research at Ghent University into the radiation effects of technologies such as 5G. ‘Three sub-technologies are important here for the radiation level: Massive MIMO, millimeter waves and small cells. 5G networks will contain a mix of those three elements. ”
Only radiation with active use
In the short term, Massive MIMO will be especially important, because it will be rolled out the fastest. Massive MIMO – short for Multiple Input and Multiple Output – is a method of sending and receiving more than one data signal simultaneously over a channel. “It means that a cell tower consists of hundreds of small elements or antennas,” says Joseph. ‘Users then get their own channel to the mast, which also follows them. That is different from existing systems, which simply send an unconducted signal into space. ‘ As an individual you will no longer constantly come into contact with radiation with the new network
Massive MIMO may increase radiation levels simply because there will be many more antennas. That is the conclusion of a study carried out by telecom regulator BIPT. Although the method can also cause a reduction. According to Joseph, as an individual you will no longer constantly come into contact with radiation, unlike with current antennas. Massive MIMO only sends radiation to an individual if they are actively using their smartphone, not when they are in their pockets. “So technology requires a new kind of radiation analysis,” Joseph concludes.
In addition, there are the so-called millimeter waves. Those are signals at very high frequencies – they have wavelengths of about a millimeter. Those rays don’t go that far, but they carry very high amounts of data. Millimeter waves are not currently in use in Europe for 5G.
‘Not much research has been done into the biological effects of millimeter waves,’ says radiation expert Guy Vandenbosch (KU Leuven). ‘At the moment we mainly use microwaves. We do know that millimeter wave radiation penetrates much less deeply into the body. For example, they don’t reach the brain, while microwaves do. “
And then there are the small cells: smaller base stations that operators want to spread in large numbers in cities within a few years. These will not replace the larger antennas for the time being, but they will bring the connection closer to the user. Which is also important when we roll out millimeter waves, because those rays will be easier to block and therefore reach less.
This results in more radiation sources, but at the same time the total radiation level can decrease, Vandenbosch thinks. ‘With the smaller cells, you no longer have to send out so much power for a good connection. Paradoxically, you could install small cells indoors to lower the radiation level. After all, the large cell towers should no longer be able to radiate through the walls. ‘
Extra source of radiation
The sub-technologies on which 5G relies contain elements that can reduce radiation, but also elements that can increase them. Researchers do not yet know in which direction the balance will lean.
“5G provides an additional source of radiation in addition to 2G, 3G and 4G,” notes Joseph. ‘We especially need to do more research into how 5G technologies emit radiation in practice. It is difficult to measure that 5G is not yet being used massively. ‘
What are the benefits of 5g?
First of all, 5G naturally offers higher broadband speeds, giving you a faster data network and an estimated ten times more data per unit time than 4G. It should also provide a lower latency , which increases the response speed between sending a signal and receiving a response.
In addition, 5G networks will support more devices within the same radius than what 4G now allows. Where the old standard supports one hundred thousand devices per square kilometer, the new one can handle one million. All those improvements make 5G more than just a 4G network on speed. It opens up many new applications, some of which are beneficial to health.
New technologies will mainly benefit from the lower latency . Self-driving cars must be able to respond as quickly as possible to unexpected events on the road, such as a cyclist who suddenly crosses. A faster network would improve those reaction speeds and thus the safety of the driver and his environment.
In an emergency intervention, ambulance workers can wear smart glasses that record and stream live videos via a 5G connection. Doctors can watch from the hospital and give directions. With the current 4G standard, the image quality is still too low for that and there is too much delay on the connection.
Pieces of network
Because it is built more on software than on hardware, you can also virtually divide a 5G network into pieces, a principle called network slicing . For example, you could optimize one slice or piece for low latency, which is ideal for self-driving cars. You can then assign another slice to smartphones, where you offer high data speeds. Both slices or parts exist virtually side by side on the same physical network.
That principle would also allow you to make an ultra-reliable slice that is only intended for the emergency services. Today they still regularly lose signal during major disasters such as a fire. There, spectators or victims often start to make massive phone calls, send messages or upload videos to social media, which gets the network into trouble. A separate slice for the emergency services would circumvent that.
5G may further be useful for remote operations. An experienced surgeon can operate a patient on the other side of the world via a robot, making it easier to use his or her knowledge where it is needed. This presupposes high image resolution and low latency, otherwise errors will quickly creep into the operation.
Should we ban 5G for the time being?
No one knows with certainty what the precise radiation and health effects of a widely deployed 5G network will be. Should we therefore not apply the precautionary principle in such a situation and ban the technology until there is a consensus?
‘Applying the precautionary principle here in such a strict way would be too much,’ Westerink responds. ‘We would slow down technological innovation too much. For example, we are already imposing restrictions on radiation, with additional safety margins added to deal with that uncertainty. Most academics agree that we should stay within those margins and take the complaints individuals report seriously. ”
“The debate is too polarized,” says Vandenbosch. “On the one hand, there are the action groups, which I find too fundamentalist. If you do what they ask, our mobile connections will no longer work. On the other hand, you have the companies that structurally underestimate things. They often believe that if there is no evidence, there is nothing wrong. “
Vandenbosch advocates a middle ground. “I think we should meet in the middle. That is why I support the ALATA principle, which stands for As Low As Technically Achievable . As long as there is uncertainty about health effects, we must limit the radiation. I think that’s the correct way to implement the precautionary principle. ”