5G Health Studies Inconclusive But Weather Forecasting Could Suffer
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on October 29, 2019 |

5G cell networks are billed as fast, low-latency, almost-necessary means of deploying new technologies like autonomous vehicles, augmented reality and virtual reality. But with every introduction of new technology, it encounters those who don’t trust it.


5G 3.5 GHz cell site of Deutsche Telekom in Darmstadt, Germany.
5G 3.5 GHz cell site of Deutsche Telekom in Darmstadt, Germany.
5G network deployment has been halted in Brussels, Belgium and Geneva, Switzerland have halted the roll out of 5G. Wary communities include Portland, Oregon; the state of New Hampshire and Vermont; and Mill Valley, California.

So, what appears to be the problem with 5G? In this article, we take a look at the public health concerns over 5G and to what extent these concerns are grounded in scientific evidence.

What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

Though the mention of radiation might immediately call to mind images of nuclear reactors or depleted uranium shells, radiation is just the emission or transmission of energy from any source. That includes your own body heat.

The difference between a hot body (a form of non-ionizing radiation) and, say, X-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet rays (all forms of ionizing radiation), is that more powerful ionizing rays can break DNA apart and cause cancer. Non-ionizing radiation—such as the lower frequency, larger wavelength variety associated with radios, TVs and 3G and 4G networks—aren’t powerful enough to destroy chemical bonds.


Image courtesy of CNET.
Image courtesy of CNET.

5G technology will use a non-ionizing portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that includes microwaves and millimeter waves. Signals transmitted over millimeter waves are limited in range and can’t broadcast through walls, 5G deployment is depending on the installation of transmitters on every block in a city (compared to 4G which transmits over miles). As a result, 5G will necessitate up to five times the transmitters and other infrastructure as 4G. This means that the transmitters will be closer to residents than ever before.

If microwaves and millimeter waves are the non-ionizing kind of radiation, what’s the big deal?

Potential Health Issues

Though non-ionizing waves aren’t strong enough to break down DNA, critics of 5G warn that there may be other potential health risks, such as oxidative stress in a user’s cells, resulting in inflammation and possibly even diabetes, cancer, and diseases of the cardiovascular, neurological and pulmonary systems.

In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that cellphones might cause some brain cancers. The research body delving into the issue could not strongly determine one way or the other that radio frequency (RF) radiation was carcinogenic or safe, instead placing it alongside coffee and pickled vegetables as “possibly carcinogenic.”

In 2018, the National Toxicology Program wrapped up a 10-year-long examination of the effects of cellphone radiation on rats, finding a link between 2G and 3G radiation exposure and brain, heart and adrenal tumors in male rats. Interestingly, those same rats that were hit with high levels of RF radiation actually lived longer than those that weren’t exposed to any radiation.

The results of the study cannot be extrapolated directly to humans, unfortunately, because the rats were given RF radiation of 900 MHz across their entire bodies. It is worth noting that 5G uses higher frequencies (2600MHz to 28,000 GHz) than 4G (700–2500MHz), meaning that it is significantly stronger than the frequencies directed at the rats in the research. However, the rats were exposed to the radiation for nine hours a day from birth to the point that they reached two years of age. Additionally, there was no apparent increased risk in the female rats tested.

Other research in humans has shown mixed results. A Danish longitudinal study tracked roughly 400,000 people who had cell phones between 1982 and 1995, reporting in 2007 that over the course of 13 years there was no link between brain tumors or cancer overall. Of course, cellphone technology has changed since the time period examined and the research did not include the amount of time phones were used.

Another study looked at 800,000 women in the U.K. over the course of seven years, finding no link between cellphone use and brain tumors, but found a possible connection between acoustic neuromas and long-term cellphone use. An acoustic neuroma is a non-cancerous tumor that can lead to hearing loss, ringing and loss of balance.

Research Inconclusive

The consensus among government bodies in the U.S. and Europe either suggest that there is no link between negative health effects and cellphone radiation or that more research is needed. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for instance, deems cellphones safe for consumer use: “Based on our ongoing evaluation of this issue, the totality of the available scientific evidence continues to not support adverse health effects in humans caused by exposures at or under the current radio frequency energy exposure limits. We believe the existing safety limits for cell phones remain acceptable for protecting the public health.”

The National Cancer Institute (NCI), however, stated, “Studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck. More research is needed because cell phone technology and how people use cell phones have been changing rapidly.”

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has said, “Current scientific evidence has not conclusively linked cell phone use with any adverse health problems, but more research is needed.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported, “At this time we do not have the science to link health problems to cell phone use. Scientific studies are underway to determine whether cell phone use may cause health effects.”

Other Concerns

Health agencies are still on the fence about the long-term impacts of cellphone technology, but there may be other concerns about 5G infrastructure that are more conclusive. Neil Jacobs, the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told Congress that interference from 5G could set weather forecasting back 40 years.

Microwave sensors that monitor water vapor rely on some of the same frequency bands as those for 5G cell networks. Specifically, the 24 GHz band that the FCC auctioned off in March 2019 could interfere with water vapor data transmitted by microwave sensors at a frequency of 23.8GHz. The result, according to Jacobs, could be a roughly 30 percent decrease in weather forecast accuracy, similar to our forecast skills in the 1980s.


Image courtesy of AMS Weather Book.
Image courtesy of AMS Weather Book.
NOAA is not the only agency concerned about this interference. The U.S. Navy also sent a memo warning that interference could occur and suggested wireless companies work with weather forecasting groups to prevent any issues from occurring.

In February 2019, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine requested that the FCC hold off on auctioning off other portions of the spectrum, but their request was rejected. The chairs of the House Science Committee and House Appropriations Committee both wrote letters to FCC chair urging that the FCC consult with NOAA, NASA and the Department of Defense to review potential negative impacts of 5G on national security.

Jacobs said that, had this been the case in 2012, we would not have been able to predict Hurricane Sandy hitting the Northeast Coast, leading to a lack of preparedness. Global warming is thought have increased the severity of the storm, with warmer ocean waters leading to greater precipitation and sea level rise ramping up the power of the storm surge. As climate change leads to potentially more catastrophic extreme weather events, weather forecasting capabilities will be essential as the Earth becomes warmer.

Future of 5G Roll Out

The FCC is already in the process of enabling 5G roll out. 5G networks will use low-band and mid-band frequencies from 600MHz to 4.2GHz, but companies like AT&T and Verizon are already aiming for high frequency bands, leading the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to auction portions of the spectrum as high as 47GHz.


A 5G cell transmitter on a utility pole in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The town is fighting 5Groll out in order to preserve the charm of its downtown, which would be affected by the proliferation of cell phone towers 5G demands. (Image courtesy of CNET/Marguerite Reardon.)
A 5G cell transmitter on a utility pole in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The town is fighting 5G roll out in order to preserve the charm of its downtown, which would be affected by the proliferation of cell phone towers 5G demands. (Image courtesy of CNET/Marguerite Reardon.)
The FCC is also imposing new restrictions on how local governments regulate transmitters on city property. Franchise fees have been capped at $270 per year, much lower than the $3,000 some cities charge. Congress may also pass laws that reflect the FCC's new rules.

Portland mayor Ted Wheeler estimated that the rules would cost the city $9.5 million per year in lost revenue, saying that the FCC rules were “something of a land grab against local infrastructure, like telephone poles, where these wireless nodes will be connected.”

Additionally, the Telecom Act of 1996 prohibits city governments from using health or safety concerns to block cellphone deployment. 20 states have also passed laws preventing cities from enacting zoning oversight for permitting small cells on utility poles and traffic lights.

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