→ 5G Health Effects

Alexia Barakou

In protests in cities across Europe, many people have picked up on a potential harm already highlighted by scientists. They are demanding more research into the heightened radio frequency radiation that 5G will generate. For their part, many researchers complain their health warnings are being white-washed by an over-hyped economic and political case. 

Among them is Professor Lennart Hardell, an oncologist at the Örebro University Hospital, Sweden, who is known for his research into environmentally generated cancers and for studies that claim causal connection between mobile phone use and brain tumours.

“It is not a scientific problem anymore,” he says. “We have science that shows there are risks, although we of course need more research. The problem has to do with politics and economy. This is a billion euro industry that can do whatever it wants since politicians are listening to them and industry has infiltrated the organisations defining safety standards for radiation.”

Another leading scientist in the field, Professor Dariusz Leszczynski, a molecular biologist with a doctorate from the Jagiellonian University, Krakow, puts the case for slowing the 5G roll-out until there is more certainty on health effects.

“I don’t believe that every cell-phone user is doomed and will develop cancer. But some of us might. The problem is, we don’t know who. We have no science to diagnose what the combination of genes and environmental factors is, such that it will make a person more prone to respond to this radiation in a way that would lead, for instance, to brain cancer.”

There’s radiation. And then there’s radiation.

Radiation falls into two categories, ionising and non-ionising. Radio frequency radiation, of which mobile signals are a part, is non-ionising. Other types of non-ionising radiation are ultraviolet, visible light, power infrastructure and radio waves. Frequencies above ultraviolet, such as x-rays and gamma rays, are ionizing and highly carcinogenic.

In 2011 radio frequency radiation was upgraded to “possibly carcinogenic” by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). “Possible” because there is insufficient evidence that exposure may cause cancer in humans. Eating pickled vegetables and using talcum powder fall in the same category. However, following studies carried out since 2011 many scientists are calling for radio frequency radiation to be scaled up to “probably carcinogenic”. Among them is Prof. Hardell.

“I was one of the 30 scientists who in 2011 agreed that radio frequency should be graded to “possibly” carcinogenic […]. Based on later animal studies and more epidemiological studies on humans we now have reason to say that radio frequency radiation from wireless technologies is a human carcinogen Group 1, according to the definition by IARC.”

He continues: “One of the cancer types with the biggest increase is thyroid cancer. This may not only be due to better diagnostics, but radiation from wireless technology may play a role. There is also an increase in the number of brain tumours.”

Skin deep

5G radiates so-called millimetre waves which have a known localised thermal, or heating, effect understood not to penetrate the skin. But this is highly problematic in itself, says Prof. Leszczynski. 

“This is being used as assurance: ‘It’s only the skin, it doesn’t go into the brain, everything is fine.’ But it is not so fine. The skin is our largest organ. It is full of cells that regulate our immune response. If we mess up the immune response in our skin, we mess up the immune response of our bodies altogether.”

Mr Louis Slesin founded Microwave News in New Yorkin 1981 and has been reporting on thehealth and environmental impacts of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and other types of non-ionizing radiation ever since. He shares Prof. Leszczynski’s reservations.

“The argument that radiofrequency radiation does not cause cancer because it doesn’t have the quantum energy to break DNA is simplistic and foolish. For instance, the radiation may instead be able to inhibit DNA repair. These are two sides of the same coin: whether it breaks DNA, or it inhibits its repair, the net result is the same.”

“I think there are more complicated interactions than the pure thermal ones. It is almost inconceivable that there wouldn’t be. There are too many studies showing effects.”

Dr David Gee, former research director at the European Environmental Agency (EEA), challenges the thinking which holds that harm to the skin can only be done if incoming radio wave energy is sufficiently powerful to cause heating “is obsolete”.

“We know that cells in the body talk to each other through two systems, chemical and electrical messages. It shouldn’t be that hard to understand that […] a short pulse of outside interference in that conversation between cells will scramble that conversation.”

Many scientists are presenting or citing findings which they argue should trigger the “better safe than sorry” precautionary approach enshrined in European Union law. In 2014 the World Health Organisation said “no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use”. The problem now, six years on, is that scientists are split on the health risks of electromagnetic field radiation. According to Dr Esra Neufeld, Project Leader Computational Life Sciences at the Zurich-based Foundation for Research on Information Technologies in Society (IT’IS), they won’t be un-splitting any time soon.

“Some categorically deny that there are anything other than the thermal effects. […] Others say the non-thermal effects are extremely underestimated. The literature is still contradictory.”

So where does the agency responsible for setting guidance limits in Europe, the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), stand in the face of the contradictory evidence it is presented with? Does it believe there are no effects beyond thermal effects? Eric Van Rongen is Chair of the ICNIRP.

“No, we’re not convinced of that. We know that there are non-thermal effects. But we’re not convinced that these have been established as adverse health effects. Not every change in a biological system is considered an adverse health effect. Many biological effects can be induced by electromagnetic field exposure, but they don’t necessarily count as adverse health effects.

“We know that there are non-thermal effects. But we’re not convinced that these have been established as adverse health effects. Not every change in a biological system is considered an adverse health effect. Many biological effects can be induced by electromagnetic field exposure, but they don’t necessarily count as adverse health effects.”

“You need to know for sure that health will be compromised by exposure. That is the only relevant basis to use for establishing exposure guidelines.”

Fertility risk in women and men”

5G will use higher frequency spectrum space than earlier mobile networks, allowing more devices to have access to the internet at the same time and at faster speeds. Its radio frequency waves travel shorter distances before dying out after a few hundred metres, so 5G networks need to belly hop across more transmitters to get to destination. Small mobile base stations will appear on walls, lampposts and other street furniture across urban areas serving that.

Professor David Carpenter, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany in the USA, says 5G should not be rolled out until there has been sufficient study of its health hazards.

“There has not been adequate study of the adverse effects of electromagnetic fields in general and there has been almost no study of the specific higher frequencies to be used in 5G […] We already have clear evidence for elevations in brain and other cancers resulting from excessive exposure to mobile phone, WiFi and other sources of electromagnetic fields. It may be that 5G doesn’t penetrate past the skin and eye, and is therefore less dangerous that current 3 and 4G.  But there are still two major concerns.  Current plans would have mini-cell towers broadcasting 3,4,and 5G concurrently, greatly increasing exposure to frequencies we know to be dangerous.  But effects of 5G on skin and eye, even if does not penetrate further, should be determined before it is widely implemented.”

“In addition, there is clear evidence of reduced fertility among both men and women, and an increasing incidence of the syndrome of electro-hypersensitivity, where affected individuals show fatigue, headaches and cognitive disturbances when in the presence of the fields.”

Landmark studies

There are two studies that are most frequently cited by scientists and others concerned about 5G health risks.

In the first, by the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health, rats and mice were exposed to high levels of electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones for two years, even before the animals’ birth. The results were released in 2018 and found that in some cases male rats developed heart, brain and adrenal gland tumours. Perversely perhaps, the rats exposed to radiation lived longer than others in the control group.

The second test was conducted on rats by the Italian Ramazzini Institute in Bologna, over a shorter period of time. Dr Fiorella Belpoggi, the institute’s Director of Research, says an increase in tumours was found to a “statistically significant” level.

Both studies have been criticized in some quarters for not being adequately definitive, to which Dr Belpoggi answers with this perspective: “What is the importance of the numbers on a global level if I have a brain tumour and if the link between electromagnetic waves and cancer has been scientifically proven?

She continues: “The risk is low. We are NOT faced with vinyl chloride, formaldehyde. We are not dealing with strong carcinogens. But we must think that instead of having 2,800 animals, but two million and 800, even brain tumours could be “statistically significantly” higher.

The fine line on limits

In Europe, the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) evaluates all available scientific literature on the effects on humans of electromagnetic fields. This serves as the basis for the exposure guidance limits the organisation sets. Eric Van Rongen is the organisation’s Chair.

“They [the two studies] only found an increase of a specific type of tumour in the heart of male rats. The Americans concluded on the basis of this that there is a clear carcinogenic effect of radio frequency exposure. ICNIRP doesn’t share that conclusion.”

And what if it fell to the ICNIRP to have a say on the roll-out of 5G? “More long-term research,” he says, but…

“Personally, I would not hesitate on rolling out 5G. Undoubtedly the type and pattern of exposure will be different from what we have now. It is even possible that in some cases the level of exposure will decrease with 5G.”

Where next? Perspectives for the future

Meanwhile the march of technology continues apace. Piloting of 5G is taking place across Europe and multi-billion euro auctions of frequency spectrum needed for the roll-out were planned this summer, at least until the Covid 19 pandemic.

However, it’s not too late to delay and take stock, says Professor Ernst von Weizsäcker, former head of Kassel University and Wuppertal Institute, leading environmental research institutions in Germany.

“We do not know for sure whether the mobile data transmission technology poses health risks. But we cannot yet exclude it either. Thus, we must insist that the health risks associated with the omnipresent radio frequency radiation for mobile devices are studied before we expose the whole population with ever rising levels of the electromagnetic fields from this technology.”