Credit: IE/Alexia Barakou

BY INGEBORG ELIASSEN

19 June 2019

Our lives change with every technological leap. As this happens, there are certain issues journalists, scientists and activists cannot touch without risking ridicule. One such topic is possible health risks from exposure to radiation from mobile technology. As 5G is being rolled out, yet another label is pinned on critics: They are communicating Russian propaganda.

“Your 5G phone won’t hurt you. But Russia wants you to think otherwise”, was the headline of a New York Times piece in May. “5G opponents spread Russian disinformation in Denmark”, stated a story on the website of Danish broadcasting DR a few weeks later.

The articles referred to the Russian-owned media outlet RT, formerly Russia Today, whose American newsroom has run a number of stories alleging 5G technology is harmful to public health. According to the New York Times, RT has been linking it to “brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumours and Alzheimer’s disease – claims that lack scientific support”. The Times notes that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has named RT as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” and quotes sources working to counter Russian disinformation. One calls the 5G stories “economic warfare” as well as “information warfare”. The Kremlin “would really enjoy getting democratic governments tied-up in fights over 5G’s environmental and health hazards”, says another.

The Danish broadcaster quotes an expert on Russian disinformation who says that it is exactly issues like 5G, where there is smouldering mistrust between citizens and authorities, which will be picked up by a medium like Russian RT. “They will always ask themselves which narratives already engage many people and then exploit it for their purposes”, he says.

And while that might be true, it is not a reason for journalists to put a lid on questions and issues that long preceded the current icy relations between the US and other Western governments on one side and Russia on the other.

5G – fifth generation mobile technology – is a “revolution” in the words of the EU Commission. 5G is a “game changer”, needed to take the leap into a society where we and our things are online 24/7. It is a prerequisite for smart homes, drone deliveries, remote surgery and driverless cars. Europe must implement 5G to keep up in the global competition, according to the EU Commission. It is urgent. The race between the telecom giants – and the states these belong to – is merciless. Re Trump vs Huawei. The roll-out is happening with a speed and with alleged potential environmental consequences that should trigger questions, not silence them.

But lack of such curiosity recently came on display in Norway.

“5G will be rolled out in Norway next year. No, it is not dangerous”, wrote Nina Kristiansen, editor-in-chief of the science website forskning.no in the newspaper Aftenposten. The article appeared in the science section and was an attack on opponents of 5G. The editor compared critics to those who think the earth is flat.

As the Norwegian member of Investigate Europe, who have recently dug into the issue of 5G and health, I felt compelled to respond, which I did, also in Aftenposten.

Is 5G a health risk? It sure looks like that on social media, where it is easy to find warnings of imminent doomsday. Kristiansen, however, refers to the Norwegian fact-checking website faktisk.no, which states that “there is no science that supports the notion that 5G or previous generations of mobile networks are dangerous, neither for humans nor animals”. Faktisk.no has been informed by the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, the Norwegian Institute for Public Health and by the major telecom corporation Telenor.

Kristiansen concedes that there actually is research that sounds the alarm about health hazards. But they are “small studies” that have been refuted. Opponents to 5G ignore the “huge amount of research” that puts anxiety to bed. And they accuse these scientists of being “bought and paid by the state or by large corporations”.

Kristiansen and faktisk.no both suppress the fact that there are large amounts of peer-reviewed research that point to health risks. This has most recently been reported by Investigate Europe. Activists challenged us to dig into the issue of radiation from mobile technology and health. The proposal was controversial, even among the journalists in our group: This is surely a conspiracy theory? Isn’t the science unequivocal? And anyway: We love our mobile phones.

We nevertheless agreed to take a real look, with the coming 5G roll-out as a starting point. Several months of research resulted in stories in British, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Polish and Portuguese media.

We charted the status of the science and mapped the groups that rank it. The landscape that opened up to us was much more complex than the one presented by national radiation and nuclear safety authorities across Europe.

Our project did not aim to distinguish between good and bad science. That might seem an obvious task, but is easier said than done: this is where the scientists themselves disagree. In fact, an expert group within the so called EMF Project at the World Health Organisation has worked on reviewing and assessing available science on the topic since 2012. The work should have concluded years ago. But controversies concerning the representativeness of the experts in the “core group” have led to long delays. Another group of experts is going to review the draft made by the original group. WHO told Investigate Europe that this “task group” will “include a broad range of opinions and expertise”.

But years have passed, and the members of the task group have still not been selected.

Almost no one has studied 5G and health, as the first 5G mobile phones are available only now, and the infrastructure is being rolled out in parallel.

But 2G and 3G technology and health has been studied by many. Most national radiation and nuclear safety authorities in Europe rely on advice from especially two international groups that decide what counts: The World Health Organisation (WHO) and ICNIRP, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. The latter recommends radiation exposure limits.

These radiation limits are set to protect against acute heating of body tissue. In order to cross these limits, you must stand directly in front of a mobile mast.

Radiation research has military roots and has been dominated by electrical engineers and physicists. But an increasing number of biologists, epidemiologists and others have entered the field. Everyone agrees that acute tissue heating is dangerous. But one camp of scientists believes that long-term exposure of radiation below the limit values can also negatively affect cells in the body and for example trigger cancer or harm sperm.

With this, they are in opposition to scientists that radiation protection authorities listen to.

However, an evaluation of 2266 studies in the world’s allegedly largest database for peer-reviewed research showed that 68 per cent found “significant biological or health effects associated with exposure” from man-made electromagnetic fields. Several studies have shown that industry-funded research are much less inclined to find health hazards than research with other sources of funding. The leading research groups have historically had close ties to the telecom industry. Many of the same scientists are represented in these groups. Researchers who claim to have found health risks below the limit values of radiation, however, are not represented.

Last year two rat studies, in the US and Italy, concluded with increased risk of cancer from mobile radiation. They are not “minor” or “narrow”, as claimed by forskning.no. The American study is the world’s most comprehensive, and was conducted by the National Toxicology Program.

The cancer agency of the WHO in 2011 listed radiation from electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic”. The agency’s advisory group recently recommended giving high priority to a new review.

The 5G super grid requires new radio frequencies in addition to today’s. The vacant ones are in higher frequencies, between 10 and 300 GHz. The signals from there are shorter than the signals from today’s low frequencies, and they are halted by trees and buildings. In order to secure stable network connections for everything that will depend on this, the antennas must be placed much closer, approximately every 100 meters.

Scientists at IT’IS, an industry-supported institute in Switzerland, last year reported that radiation above 10 GHz may cause tissue damage from acute heating – the one health hazard  everyone agrees on – because the energy comes in millisecond bursts. The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment warns against increasing “electrosmog” and lack of knowledge about its health effects.

ICNIRP’s chairman concedes that more research is needed. “There is still a lot of uncertainty. For example, we do not know enough about the long-term effects of mobile use for brain tumours to draw conclusions”, said Eric van Rongen to Investigate Europe.

Is 5G dangerous? The WHO said it is “of course difficult to assess any chronic health effects from new technologies over the short-term, especially regarding 5G, which is not yet finalised and for which no device is yet on the market”.

Now, a few months later, the first 5G mobile phones are on the market. They are part of a technology leap that will change society and our lives. Heavy economic interests are at stake, and they have no time to lose in the roll-out. The EU 5G Action Plan encourages national governments to remove deployment barriers for the installation of the necessary small cells, including local planning procedures. The Nordic prime ministers followed-up, agreeing to remove obstacles to deploy base stations and antennas. The Norwegian government has requested municipalities to process applications from the telecom companies fast, positively and with low fees.

No journalists want to be seen as flat-earthers or tools of foreign state propaganda systems. In a climate where such labels are handed out, however, reporters must remember that our job remains what it has always been: to ask questions on issues of great public interest, especially where they are not welcomed.