By the end of this year, a new super-fast mobile network will be operating in all major capital cities and regional areas in Australia.
5G represents the fifth generation of mobile network technology, and it promises to be as much of a leap forward as 4G mobile broadband was back in 2011.
As the rollout proceeds, however, it’s become a focal point for longstanding concerns about the health effects of electromagnetic radiation.
“I’m very concerned about 5G. I already get headaches from 4G and wifi,” Oliver in Mackay wrote in to Hack.
A Sydney resident told the ABC recently: “We don’t want it here. It causes us great anxiety that this thing is going to be running 24-7.”
Bubbling beneath this are online forums and articles about 5G causing cancer, nosebleeds and autism, and bringing about a ‘wireless apocalypse’.
To complicate matters, Russia’s RT Network has recently been implicated in a 5G-health-scare disinformation campaign, which the New York Times reports is an attempt to slow US adoption, research and development of the important new technology.
To save you having to read the whole article, here’s the short answer: Australian and many other national health regulators say 5G is safe, while some recognised researchers urge caution.
What is 5G?
As with previous generational upgrades, the new tech is much faster than the existing network: Telstra recently achieved network speeds of around 3Gbps – about 60 times faster than 4G.
It’s likely to be used for driverless cars and virtual reality, as it allows much larger amounts of data to be transferred with less time between the signal being sent and received.
It achieves this speed and bandwidth partly through using higher frequencies of electromagnetic waves than 4G or any of the previous mobile networks.
To understand what this means, let’s go back to high school physics: Mobile phones and mobile towers emit radiation, as do radios, microwaves, X-ray machines, and the sun.
Radiation can be broadly divided into ionising and non-ionising types.
Ionising radiation is powerful enough to damage DNA, which is why you have to be careful about too much sunlight or too many X-rays.
Non-ionising radiation doesn’t have enough energy to break our DNA, and therefore we have traditionally thought it cannot cause cancer.
5G-type electromagnetic waves are a higher frequency than 4G (and therefore further up the spectrum towards X-rays) but still on the non-ionising side.
Because they have shorter wavelengths, the waves are less able to penetrate solid objects (e.g. sunlight can’t go through a wall, but radio waves can).
For this reason, 5G requires heaps of suitcase-size cell boxes to boost the signal and direct it around corners and other obstacles. These will be a lot more numerous than 4G towers.
Can it cause cancer?
Though radio waves are non-ionising, in 2011 a World Health Organisation research team classified all radio frequency emissions as a possible carcinogen.
Bad news, right? Not really! The headline comes with an important caveat: The same class of possible carcinogens includes pickles and aloe leaf extract.
University of Helsinki biochemist Adjunct Professor Dariusz Leszczynski, who was one of the WHO researchers, told Hack the 2011 announcement did not go far enough.
He believes that cell phone radiation could be upgraded from a possible carcinogen to probable carcinogen, the group that includes lead compounds and red meat.
He concedes there’s no evidence of radio frequencies causing cancer, but says there’s evidence suggesting using mobiles over long periods of time increases the risk of developing glioma, a category of brain tumour.
Epidemiological studies have provided supportive evidence of the increased risk of brain tumours from mobile use, and others have suggested this could be due to DNA damage (there’s a summary of the peer-reviewed studies here).
Most national regulators believe non-ionising radiation only has a thermal effect, i.e. it heats up the body, but does not have any other effect, such as damaging DNA.
Leszczynski says these studies are evidence it also has a non-thermal effect.
If that’s true, it would overturn the scientific basis of our current limits on mobile phone radiation exposure.
However, these studies are limited. As Leszczynski says: “This result is from epidemiological studies that can show only whether there’s an increase or decreased risk of developing disease.
“They cannot demonstrate in particular this radiation has caused this cancer.”
His point is that we just don’t know what exactly is going on, and therefore we should be cautious.
What effect does it have?
One reason we don’t know is that it’s very difficult to study the long-term effect of cellphone radiation on humans. Unlike, say, smoking, we’re unable to expose one group to radio frequencies, and then compare their health with the non-exposed population.
Cellphone radiation is already everywhere, plus the frequency of radiation has changed rapidly over a relatively short period of time. The way we use our phones has also changed (for example, now children are more likely to use phones than before).
That leaves studies on animals: In 1999, the US FDA asked the National Toxicology Program (NTP) to study the toxicity and cancer-causing capability of cellphone radio-frequency radiation.
This was a US$30 million undertaking. The scientists had to have special chambers built in Switzerland so they could control exactly how much radiation the animals were getting.
The draft findings came out nearly 20 years later, in 2018.
It found that several rats and mice that had been blasted with large amounts of radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation for two years exhibited tumours.
“We believe that the link between radiofrequency radiation and tumours in male rats is real, and the external experts agreed,” said NTP’s John Bucher in a statement.
But the researchers struggled to form conclusions from the study.
The rodents were exposed to much greater levels of radiation than a person would be using a mobile phone or another consumer device.
There was also no clear linear relationship between higher radiation exposure and more cancer.
Also, humans absorb radiation differently to rats and mice.
Given this uncertainty, it’s a big leap to pause the technology without any evidence of ill-effects.
A huge chunk of the population has been using mobile phones for over two decades, and there hasn’t been an observed increase in cancer rates.
Professor Rodney Croft from the Australian Centre for Electromagnetic Bioeffects Research at the University of Wollongong argues we can be confident in the relative safety of non-ionising radiation.
“The reality is we know a lot about the mechanisms involved with the interactions with electromagnetic fields and the body,” he told Hack.
The only effect we see is small temperature rise.
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki – beloved triple J science communicator and qualified scientist, doctor and engineer – is also on board with this argument.
“Mobile phones have never been proven to cause cancer with 1G, 2G, 3G, or 4G, and we can be fairly confident we can find the same with 5G,” he said.
“It’s non-ionising; the bottom line is it’s never been proven to cause cancer. It might sit in your skin and warm it up, but that doesn’t cause cancer.
“It’ll warm up your skin a tiny amount, but so tiny you won’t be able to measure it.”
What’s the regulation?
Telstra, which is rolling out the technology, says its test results show electromagnetic energy levels are similar to the existing 3G and 4G networks, and well below the safety levels set by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).
ARPANSA’s Dr Ken Karipidis, an expert on how radiation affects the human body, told Hack these limits are in line with those of other national regulatory bodies.
“There are some parts of the world that have lower limits but you’ll find they’re not scientifically based,” he said.
They may have had community pressure and they thus reduced their limits but they’re not based on any scientific evidence.
Like Professor Croft and Dr Karl, ARPANSA follows the evidence-based assumption that non-ionising radiation will only cause an increase in temperature, and cannot cause cancer.
“With radiofrequency radiation the only established health effect is that of rising temperature,” Dr Karipidis said.
“We base our standards on avoiding temperatures than can cause health effects.”
He said that, despite heightened concerns ahead of the rollout, 5G radiation is not radically different from that used by the 4G network. In fact, 5G in Australia will initially use the same frequency band as 4G, before shifting to higher frequency “millimetre waves”.
“There has been quite a bit of research done on millimetre waves,” he said.
“Radar technologies or satellites use millimetre waves so it’s not something new, it’s something we’ve had before.”