In this spotlight, we look at the impact on our bodies of electromagnetic fields and discuss why some claim that 5G technology might not be effective.

Many government agencies and organisations warn that there is no need to be alarmed about the impact of radiofrequency waves on our wellbeing, as 5G wireless technology is steadily finding its way around the world. But some experts disagree strongly.

Why do some people believe that 5G technology may harm our health?

The word 5G refers to the fifth mobile technology generation. 5G will seem like a natural progression for our increasingly tech-reliant society with promises of faster browsing, streaming, and download rates, as well as improved connectivity.

Yet 5G has been planned to improve performance and reduce latency, which is the time it takes for devices to connect with each other, beyond enabling us to watch the latest movies.

These changes will play a major role in how rapidly we incorporate technology into our daily lives for integrated applications, such as robots, self-driving vehicles, and medical devices.

The usage of higher-frequency bandwidths, through the radio frequency spectrum, would be the strong component of 5G technology.

But what does 5G have to do with our health?

We look at what electromagnetic radiation is in this spotlight, how it can influence our wellbeing, the debate around radio frequency networks, and what this means for the advent of 5G technology.

What is electromagnetic radiation?

An electromagnetic field (EMF) is a field of energy that results from electromagnetic radiation, a form of energy that occurs as a result of the flow of electricity.

Electric fields occur wherever power lines or outlets are located, whether or not the electricity is turned on. Only when electric currents flow are magnetic fields formed. These together, generate EMFs.

Electromagnetic radiation exists as a spectrum of different wavelengths and frequencies, which are measured in hertz (Hz). This term denotes the number of cycles per second.

Between 50 and 60 Hz, which is at the lower end of the spectrum, power lines work. Along with radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light, and some of the ultraviolet spectrum that brings us into the megahertz (MHz), GHz, and terahertz spectra, these low-frequency waves make up what is referred to as nonionizing radiation.

Above this lie the petahertz and exahertz spectra, which include X-rays and gamma rays. These are types of ionizing radiation, which mean that they carry sufficient energy to break apart molecules and cause significant damage to the human body.

Radiofrequency EMFs (RF-EMFs) include all wavelengths from 30 kilohertz to 300 GHz.

Exposure to RF-EMFs is mainly from mobile devices such as cell phones and laptops, as well as from base stations for cell phones, medical applications and TV antennas for the general public.

Heating is the most well-established biologic impact of RF-EMFs. High doses of RF-EMFs can lead to an increase in exposed tissue temperature, resulting in burns and other damage.

But mobile devices emit RF-EMFs at low levels. Whether this is a cause for concern is a matter of ongoing debate, reignited by the arrival of 5G.

Moving from 4G to 5G

5G connectivity and health
Will 5G expose us to more radiation?

The arrival of the 5G network promises to improve connectivity. What that means, in reality, is wider coverage and more bandwidth to allow our multitude of data to travel from A to B.

To build out networks at the higher end of the RF-EMF spectrum, new base stations, or small cells, will appear around the globe.

The reason behind this is that high-frequency radio waves have a shorter range than lower-frequency waves. Small cells that will allow data to travel relatively short distances will form a key part of the 5G network, particularly in areas of dense network usage.

But while our lives may be transformed by faster browsing, integrated e-health applications, driverless cars, and real-life connectivity across the “internet of things,” will this make a significant impact on the amounts of RF-EMFs that we are exposed to?

The short answer is, no one really knows, yet. Writing in Frontiers in Public Health earlier this month, a group of international scientists, including Dr. Hardell, comment on the potential risks of 5G technology.

“Higher frequency (shorter wavelength) radiation associated with 5G does not penetrate the body as deeply as frequencies from older technologies, although its effects may be systemic,” they explain.

The range and magnitude of potential impacts of 5G technologies remain under-researched while millimeter-wavelength exposure has been reported to yield substantial biological results. The authors continue to include oxidative stress and altered gene expression, skin effects, and systemic effects, such as immune function.

The teams make several recommendations, including more thorough monitoring and data collection to determine connections between exposure to RF-EMF and health effects, sharing knowledge on health risk with consumers, and restricting exposure in children under 16. In their list, the last point states the following.

The bottom line

Certainly, there is evidence that RF-EMF exposure is related to a minor rise in the risk of developing certain cancers and other adverse health effects.

But the jury is still out on how serious a threat RF-EMFs in general — and 5G bandwidths in particular — pose to our health.

To reduce our exposure to RF-EMFs, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggest cutting down how much time we spend on our cell phones, as well as using speaker mode or a hands-free kit to create more distance between our devices and our heads.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend limiting the time that kids and teenagers spend on mobile devices.

Chart showing the electromagnetic spectrum

The electromagnetic spectrum is broken up into two categories: ionizing and non-ionizing. The high-frequency millimetre wavelengths that are expected to be used for some 5G deployments are in the non-ionizing category.

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