Should We Be Afraid of 5G?

Catherine Moréas

February 21, 2020

The arrival of 5G, or fifth generation mobile technology, promises a hyperconnected world, but also raises concerns.

In the UK, much of the debate has centered on security implications over the involvement of the Chinese technology firm Huawei in the UK network. But is there a risk to health?

A report launched by the French National Agency for Health Security (ANSES) on 3rd February pointed to an "important gap, a lack of data on the potential biological and health effects of the band frequencies being considered", while several associations have called for a halt to the deployment of 5G "on Earth and in space".

A Tenfold Increase in Bandwidth and Connection Density

The UK already has 5G in some major cities but 5G will be deployed in France at the end of 2020. The operators are in the starting blocks even before the frequencies have been allocated. The market is promising, but the stakes are high. The Communications and Postal Services Regulatory Authority announced a bandwidth 10 times higher than that for 4G and a connection density, as in the number of devices that can communicate simultaneously, also multiplied by a factor of 10.

As a result, automated vehicles have been announced, alongside "intelligent and connected" towns, remote control robots, etc. Health is a primary concern, on two counts. On the positive side, 5G should allow telemedicine to take off but the negative side would be if it is shown that these new frequencies could have an impact on human health.

There is, however, a lack of scientific data examining the impact of such a technological leap. ANSES recognised this in a preliminary report published late last year. Its work in this area continues, with the results due to be published in early 2021.

More Than Just Little Antennae

To work, 5G will use specific frequencies: at first 3.5 GHz in mobile telephones; then, after several years, 26 GHz (so-called ‘millimeter’ waves) for communication between connected devices.

The frequencies are higher than those used currently in smartphones and WiFi. The range of the electromagnetic waves being shorter, the number of little antennae to relay the signal will need to be multiplied.

For Dr Annie Sasco, this is a real cause for concern: "The antennae will be smaller and directional, but they will also be less visible. We will not be able to avoid them, especially in towns. The people the most susceptible, such as pregnant women and children, will be automatically affected."

For his part, Yves Le Dréan, a biologist at the Research Institute for Health, Environment, and Work, does not deny the risk of increased electromagnetic "pollution" but puts the consequences into perspective: "At first, 5G will not replace 2G, 3G and 4G. It will be superimposed. The advent of 5G will increase the level of exposure of the population, but to what extent? No one knows currently.

"One thing is sure, with 5G at 3.5 GHz, we will be extremely close to 4G, which is between 1.8 GHz and 2.5 GHz. It is difficult to imagine health effects from shifting by a few gigahertz, as long as the standards are respected."

The Studies Are Largely Reassuring

As ANSES underlined in its preliminary report, "the research has principally focused on electromagnetic fields with frequencies less than 3GHz, which corresponds to the radiocommunication levels to which the public is most exposed".

In this area, the studies are largely reassuring, aside for heavy mobile telephone users. An increased risk of neuroma of the acoustic nerve, and of glioma, has been noted in people who exceed more than 1640 hours of mobile telephone exposure. For that reason, since 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic waves as potentially carcinogenic for humans (group 2B).

Physiological alterations to brain activity during sleep have also been noted. In a 2018 report, ANSES notes the possible effects on cognitive function. Taking a cautious approach, it recommends using a hands-free kit and issues a specific warning on the use of smartphones by children.

Skin Exposure

Up to 10 GHz, electromagnetic waves do not penetrate deep into the body but are absorbed by the superficial layers of the skin. What are the consequences for cutaneous cells and nerve endings? "If it’s not dangerous, let it at least be shown in animals," exclaimed Dr Sasco.

The only known risk is thermal, through the heating of water molecules. In the USA, tests of non-lethal weapons were conducted with very high-power waves (94 GHz). "It’s like being plunged in a 70º bath," observed Yves de Dréan before underlining that the frequencies envisaged for 5G are well below that and there will not be any thermal effects, if the standards are respected.

5G "augmented" to 26 GHz will take us, however, into another dimension. At this level, the only points of comparison identified by ANSES are body scanners at airports, which use 24–30 GHz. The two expert reports the agency has conducted on this subject revealed no increased risk to the health of travellers.

Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity

What will happen to 5G users immersed in this unprecedented electromagnetic environment?

"In terms of public health, I am not worried over the short term," commented Yves Le Dréan. "Long term, I don’t know. We can wonder about the effects in people with certain genetic variants that make them perhaps less resistant to this type of stress. We will have to address this fundamental question."

It is worth noting that ANSES recognised for the first time in 2018 the existence of illness linked to electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

In addition, to complete the compendium of potential risks attached to 5G, last January the European Commission proposed an assessment of the risks associated with 5G networks and issued recommendations while awaiting further data, although these were linked to cybercriminality and espionage rather than health.

Marked Reluctance Among Associations and Moratorium Demands

French scientists, environmental NGOs and electrosensitive societies are worried about the potential health risks of 5G technology.

The French associations Agir pour l’Environment (Environmental Action) and PRIARTEM announced on 27th January that they had filed an appeal with the Council of State. The aim is to cancel the decree of 30th December 2019 launching the procedure to allocate frequencies.

"The state takes the risk of exposing the population to an environmental pollution, the effects of which on living conditions and health it is incapable of assessing," say the two associations in a joint statement.

In November 2018, scientists and citizens of various countries made an appeal to "halt the deployment of 5G on Earth and in space". By the start of 2020, it had received more than 200,000 signatures.

"Before exposing the entire human, animal and plant populations on the planet to new frequencies that have never been studied, it would be prudent to perform the minimum of analysis," said Dr Sasco, an epidemiologist and medical doctor who has dedicated her career to cancer research, and who is a signature to the appeal. "A moratorium, like that for GMOs [genetically modified organisms] , would allow some time for reflection."

This reticence is not limited to France. Since 2019, numerous voices have been worried by the health impact of the deployment of 5G in Switzerland and Belgium.

In Switzerland, the expected installation of 10,000 new antennae raised fears of a considerable increase in exposure to radiofrequency radiation. A petition demanding a moratorium received almost 40,000 signatures. As a result, the canton of Vaud (a mountainous district in western Switzerland) suspended the installation of 5G antennae.

However, over in the Belgian capital, if the words of Céline Frémault, Minister for the Environment, had given the impression that Brussels was resisting and had refused 5G for health reasons, recent articles, including one published in Liberation, have suggested that the delay, rather than refusal, was largely technical in nature.

No funding or conflicts of interest declared.

Déploiement de la 5G. Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l’alimentation, de l’environnement et du travail. 3 February 2020.

Exposition de la population aux champs électromagnétiques liée au déploiement de la technologie de communication « 5G » et effets sanitaires associés. Paris: ANSES, 2019.

Translated and Adapted from Medscape's French Edition.

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