If you’ve read anything about 5G, there’s a good chance you’ve read some of the commentary suggesting that 5G will cause all manner of problems for us humans.
Whether it’s 5G cooking us from the inside out, giving us cancer, or monitoring all our conversations for the Illuminati, the conspiracy theories are rife. When sites like Infowars are key amongst those sharing these ludicrous claims, you know they’re likely to be crap, but let’s take a look anyway.
Persistent myths around mobile phones causing cancer have been around since the late 80s, with variations claiming that holding phones to your head would cause cancer, that simply walking past mobile towers would cause cancer, or that simply being alive would cause cancer.
To understand these “concerns”, first we need to understand what radiation is, and the important distinction between the two main types.
If I say radiation, you probably think about a nuclear weapon, or Homer’s job at Springfield’s Nuclear Plant. That’s probably fair enough, but that’s not really the only thing that radiation is.
Radiation is everywhere; we’re constantly bathed in it, from background cosmic radiation from the sun (and space) through to mobile networks, electro-magnetic radiation and more.
However, there’s an important distinction between what is generally safe radiation, and the much less safe type which you might be exposed to in Chernobyl or should someone nuke your fair city.
This is the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation appears at wavelengths above ultraviolet light, aka X-rays and gamma rays. These can damage your DNA by knocking electrons out of the base molecules, leading to tumors and cancer.
According to ARPANSA, radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic radiation (EMR) is the transfer of energy by radio waves. RF EMR lies in the frequency range between 3 kilohertz (kHz) to 300 gigahertz (GHz). RF EMR is non-ionising radiation, meaning that it has insufficient energy to break chemical bonds or remove electrons (ionisation). This means it can’t cause the same type of damage. Improperly used, yes, they can be somewhat harmful to you, because they can induce heat in your body tissues. However, to do so, they require significant amounts of power.
Your microwave, for example, requires a thousand watts of power (or more) to cook your dinner. Mobile radio waves don’t come anywhere near these levels.
According to the FCC in the States, the safe limit for mobile phones is a specific absorption rate (SAR) of 1.6 watts per kg (1.6 W/kg) of mass, nowhere near enough to warm up your body. Smartphones marketed in the U.S. must demonstrate compliance with this limit before they go on sale. ICNIRP guidelines used in Europe and most other countries set this limit at around 2.0 W/kg. These are the absolute legal limits of exposure.
Most of the time the real-world values are significantly lower, even when held right next to our heads or in our hands.
So, can your mobile give you cancer?
In a word, no. It’s about as likely to give you cancer as eating a pickle, using aloe vera, or being a firefighter. Why?
A literature review in 2009, and the 2010 Interphone study both summarized the lack of findings on this topic quite well. In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared cellphones as a Class 2B carcinogen, meaning the technology may be linked to cancer. This does not instantly imply the level of exposure from commercial products is dangerous – other carcinogens rated the same risk include those pickles, aloe vera leaf extract, and the firefighting career.
Even breathing in second hand cigarette smoke is significantly more dangerous than your mobile could ever be.
What about the US National Toxicology Program study? That proves it, right?
Often cited as “scientific proof” that mobile radiation causes cancer is a study by the US NTP in 2016. Here’s a quick rundown:
In 2016, the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) released draft findings of studies examining the effects of non-ionizing radiation on rats and mice. Several populations establish a control group, with males exposed to either CDMA or GSM cellphone radiation, and females exposed to GSM cellphone radiation. That’s 2G rather than modern 4G, but the difference doesn’t really matter.
Researchers applied the following exposure protocol to test the animals:
- Rats and mice were exposed to GSM or CDMA signals with whole-body exposures of zero to 15 W/kg (rats were given a lower dose).
- Exposure was initiated in utero.
- All exposures applied 7 days a week, for about 9 hours a day.
- A single, common group of unexposed rats or mice of each sex served as controls.
After two years, the study found several rats and mice exhibited tumors. However, these results mostly concerned full body exposure rather than partial-body exposure for humans. There also weren’t adequate controls for exposure uniformity, making it tough to tell exactly how much exposure each rat actually received.
The important thing, though, is the level of exposure. The test animals were exposed to radiation almost ten times higher than the maximum legal limit for mobile devices.
You will never be exposed to the amount of RF EMR used in this study. With the mice, they used ludicrously high power levels — up to 10W/kg for 2-year studies and 15W/kg for short-term ones. Even if you had a small-cell 5G tower in your front yard – which you won’t ever have – you wouldn’t receive anywhere near this level of exposure.
So what about 5G? That study was using old 2G technology …
The short answer is … no.
Much of the 5G spectrum will be in the same bands already used by WiFi and other mobile networks, so there aren’t really any new risks there.
Much of the misinformation relates to 5G mmWave, which will operate in the range of 24 to 29 GHz. At this frequency, radio waves suffer from very high reflection rates. Therefore, energy absorption is confined to the surface layers of the skin rather than deeper tissue touched by lower frequencies. Penetrating bones or the skull is out of the question, so you can throw out those brain tumor arguments.
Importantly, mmWave 5G devices are bound by the same safety standards as existing 4G LTE, Bluetooth, and WiFi products – there’s no special dispensation that allows these frequencies to operate at any stronger power levels than today’s 4G LTE, Bluetooth or WiFi devices.
According to research, a 60GHz mmWave outputting a whopping 50W/m2 of power (which wouldn’t be close to passing FCC regulations) only raises skin temperature by 0.8 degrees Celsius, which is below the IEEE standards temperature threshold of 1 degree Celsius for mmWave radiation guidelines.
If something at that power – nowhere near legal – couldn’t cause what the IEEE would think is an issue, there’s no way your mobile phone could, and neither could a cell tower even if you stood in front of it.
Scary stories make for good headlines, but the reality is there’s not much actual evidence of risk, and what there is has been well and truly overstated.
Numerous long-term high-quality studies find no link between cellphones and cancer, including ones from the Danish Strategic Research Council, the National Science Council in Taiwan, and Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, amongst others.
Like many, we’d welcome more study in this area to confirm (or even disprove) what seems to be the case, but as things stand today, the risk just isn’t there.