For many years, consumer protection groups, health organizations, and government agencies have been studying the potential risks of radio frequency (RF) emissions from electronics devices.
Concerns about electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radio frequency (RF) emissions have resulted in strong opinions and views on either side of a growing debate, which has seen a resurgence as 5G networks and devices are coming to market around the world.
Some people are saying 5G is 100% safe 100% of the time. Others are saying 5G is 100% harmful 100% of the time.
It’s hard to know who to believe. Is 5G safe, or is it dangerous? Who has the correct answer to this question?
The answer is that everybody is partly correct, but also partly wrong on their opinions about 5G. Here’s why.
Factors Impacting Safety
The danger of emissions is very different depending on many factors and conditions. There will be many scenarios where 5G is safe. There will also be situations where 5G is not safe. Here are some factors that impact safety:
- DEFECTS. The wide-scale manufacturing of goods will always result in some percentage of defective equipment that could fail to operate safely initially or over time due to component failure. This happens with numerous consumer goods. Sometimes recalls are issued.
- DEVICES. Is the 5G consumer device manufactured correctly and designed to conform with safety guidelines?
- EXPOSURE DURATION. How much time is a person exposed to the source of emissions?
- EXPOSURE FREQUENCY. How frequently is a person being exposed to the source of emissions?
- EXPOSURE TOTALS. The duration and frequency of exposure would be evaluated over time. How many hours per year is the person exposed?
- HEALTH. What is the health condition of the person being exposed? An infant, or elderly person, or someone with a compromised immune system could be at greater risk.
- INTENSITY. How intense is the emission from a device or tower?
- PROXIMITY. How close a person is to the source of emissions?
- TECHNOLOGY. Is the 5G micro-tower technology manufactured correctly and installed properly?
These are constantly changing variables and they will be different in every installation and application. So, there can not be a single answer to the question about 5G safety.
Exposure badges are worn by people who work frequently in a radiology lab or facility where radiation exposure may be a problem. Each person’s cumulative exposure over a month may be safe or might not be safe depending on the variables described above. Is the lab safe? Is the lab not safe? Well, it depends on the conditions.
When getting an x-ray at the dentist, you get a flimsy lead vest, but the dental technician will stand behind a protective wall. This is because their repeated vocational exposure to radiation puts them at greater risk so they need to reduce the exposure as much as possible. Are X-RAYs safe or not? It depends.
Cancerous Brain Tumor
Years ago a friend of mine was, like me, and early adopter of mobile phones. We would talk about the latest technology and new devices.
I would use my mobile phone with the speakerphone feature whenever possible, and I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on my mobile phone. Most of my communications were face-to-face or while driving in hands-free mode.
I noticed if I was on my mobile phone for long periods of time, especially while in rural areas with a low signal, the phone would get very hot. If I held the phone to my head, I would begin to get a headache and tingling on the side of my head where the phone was.
With my knowledge of radio communications, I knew that the mobile phone was needing to increase its signal output to reach distant cell towers. I suspected that the increased RF emissions was a cause for the discomfort and sensation in my head when using the phone for long periods of time while it was touching my ear. So, I tried to avoid that kind of use.
My friend would use his mobile phone every day, all day, and hold the phone to his ear. He was a sales person and his entire workday was spent on the phone. I advised against that kind of use and offered suggestions such as using speakerphone or using a landline. He was getting advice from cell phone manufacturers, sales people, and mobile service providers telling him that cell phones were completely safe.
One day my friend called to tell me that he had developed a cancerous brain tumor near his ear where he would regularly hold the cell phone. It’s possible there was no connection between the cell phone use and the brain tumor, but I suspected that the cell phone was the cause. If it was, then this is an example of how different uses of devices can have very different outcomes.
I believe there may be similar stories of 5G causing harm in certain conditions.
Worst Case Scenario for 5G Danger
If you live in an apartment in the city on the second floor of a building, and your bedroom has a view of the street, and the construction of the building you live in has poor shielding for EMI and RF emissions, and a 5G micro-tower gets installed right outside your window on a pole or attached to the building, and it’s installed in a way to distribute the radio waves in all directions, you will be exposed to higher levels of 5G emissions than would typically be expected and you’ll be sleeping next to that source of the emissions.
Let’s say you also work from home at your desk that is in the same bedroom described above. So, over a period of a year, you may have 5,840 hours of exposure to high levels of 5G emissions (based on 16 hours per day). Depending on your body’s response to those emissions, you could conceivably get harmed by those emissions.
Beamforming technology dynamically increases the intensity of radio waves in the direction they are most needed. This can be safer if intense waves are only between a tower and a device rather than being radiated in all directions. It can reduce exposure in directions where nobody is needing the signal. However, if you are between a beam forming tower and someone’s device, the intensity of the signal would be higher than normal and going through your body. Using the apartment example from above, if all of your neighbors are using 5G, then those signals could be intensified going through your apartment. If their use isn’t occasional, but ongoing as their primary Internet service, then that signal could be active continuously.
If your apartment building is centrally located in your neighborhood, and if it is considered to be an ideal location for the installation of many 5G micro-towers, and if it then has numerous 5G micro-towers installed around the perimeter of the building, then you will be exposed to higher levels of 5G emissions. Your bedroom becomes like the inside of microwave oven that’s perhaps set to low power. It’s not clear how many years it would take before some harm could come from that situation.
In addition to these non-typical scenarios, there is also the possibility of unsafe incorrectly installed equipment, perhaps without proper shielding or with greater output than expected due to a manufacturing defect.
Using the apartment example above, if the 5G micro-tower is on a pole and installed at a position about 20-feet above the sidewalk, but the 5G micro-tower hardware is designed to be installed at 50 feet in the air for safety because of its high output and wide dispersion of emissions, then the manner in which it was installed creates a greater hazard.
Finally, if you are someone who likes to have your smartphone on your pillow as you sleep each night, you will be exposed to emissions from your own device as well as the towers that surround you.
Most Common Scenarios for Safe 5G Use
The worst-case scenario of 5G emissions exposure described above is not likely to happen commonly to many people. So, when industry leaders proclaim that 5G is safe, they are considering the best case scenarios:
- High quality safe equipment properly installed
- Short-term infrequent exposure to 5G emissions
- Periodic limited use of 5G devices
Is 5G Safer Than Other Similar Technologies?
The high frequencies used in 5G are what cause some concern and they are what results in greater regulation of the technology. They also result in a natural limitation of 5G – the higher frequencies have more difficulty penetrating thick dense materials. So, as a result, the real-world use of 5G and similar frequencies is to have them at low power and in close proximity.
Mesh networks are a relatively new WiFi technology that allows people to have several low-power WiFi routers in their home and seamlessly use them while going from one room to the next. It’s a popular solution for people using smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers throughout the home. A benefit of having several low-power WiFi access points throughout your home is that no single device is trying to blast a signal through all your walls to reach every room. Instead, there is a lower signal. In addition to having lower RF emissions for the routers, your smartphone or laptop will not need to produce a strong signal to reach the router since there will always be one nearby. In this way, mesh networks could be safer than traditional networks with a single router. The 5G networks are built in a similar way – many low powered micro-towers instead of fewer high power towers.
Consumer devices with low power RF output are common. Your home is likely filled with them. In addition to the RF created by most electronic devices and appliances, there are devices that transmit a signal, like your home WiFi router or cordless phone. These are approved for certain frequencies at certain output levels. At higher outputs, these devices would not be approved by the government and they would likely not be safe.
In the 1970s when Citizen’s Band (CB) radio was popular, people would sometimes assemble illegal high-power CB transceivers to communicate over long distances. The limitation on the wattage output of a transceiver could partly be due to a concern about adverse side effects, but it is most likely that limitations are imposed so that the use of such devices can be localized. In other words, if you are using a 2-way-radio (a walkie-talkie) to chat with someone nearby, there’s no need for your transmission to be received 10 miles away. If your transmission was broadcast to cover an area of 10 miles, you would be interfering with others trying to use that same frequency. So, regulations examine all aspects and considerations of how a device is used.
Acceptable Losses and Collateral Damage
When introducing new technologies, companies always consider the potential liabilities, hazards, and harmful impact of their product on people and the environment. The same would be true for pharmaceutical drugs. Just about any product has a potential negative outcome.
Companies evaluate how widely adopted a product will be and what the percentages will be of side-effects and what the percentages will be of injury or deaths. Then mathematical calculations are made to determine the anticipated legal fees or compensations paid out to those harmed.
An example of this would be the Ford Pinto case:
Internal company documents showed that Ford secretly crash-tested the Pinto more than forty times before it went on the market and that the Pinto’s fuel tank ruptured in every test performed at speeds over twenty-five miles per hour. This rupture created a risk of fire.
Ford engineers considered numerous solutions to the fuel tank problem, including lining the fuel tank with a nylon bladder at a cost of $5.25 to $8.00 per vehicle, adding structural protection in the rear of the car at a cost of $4.20 per vehicle, and placing a plastic baffle between the fuel tank and the differential housing at a cost of $1.00 per vehicle. None of these protective devices was used.
Why did the company delay so long in making these minimal and inexpensive improvements? Simply, Ford’s internal “cost-benefit analysis,” which places a dollar value on human life, said it wasn’t profitable to make the changes sooner. Ford’s cost-benefit analysis showed it was cheaper to endure lawsuits and settlements than to remedy the Pinto design.
Ford knew about the risk, yet it paid millions to settle damages suits out of court and spent millions more lobbying against safety standards. Pinto was a best-selling subcompact.
With electronic devices, most companies and government agencies are trying to avoid excessive negative outcomes. Some companies are more ethical than others. The Volkswagen emissions scandal is an example of where a company has guidelines they are supposed to follow, and they say they are following those guidelines, but they aren’t. Undoubtedly there will be similar scandals with 5G equipment manufacturers and installers. People and the environment may be harmed. Those instances are not representative of 5G safety but represent a predictable human failure that is driven by greed or laziness.
Companies should try to find ways to provide products and services that are 100% safe for the consumer and the environment. A recent trend is for companies to be carbon negative (as an example) which assures they not only avoid having a negative impact, but produce a positive impact. Another example of this is regenerative farming which improves the soil and the environment rather than just having no negative impact.
Electromagnetic Interference (EMI)
Understanding the nature of electromagnetic interference is a very helpful prerequisite to understanding the potential impact and harm of 5G. As with everything, the outcomes are variable and based on a number of factors.
Here are some excerpts from an article on EMI:
Every single day, we encounter electromagnetic interference, also known as EMI. Garbled conversations and dropped cell phone calls; The “noise” your radio makes when you drive under power lines; crackles on your phone lines during lightning storms. EMI can create inconveniences, but there are much more dire repercussions to EMI.
Generated by many natural and manmade factors, EMI can be the cause of data losses, system failure and in some catastrophic cases, the loss of life.
As anyone who’s ever ridden an airplane knows, you must turn your cell phones off during takeoff and landing to minimize EMI with flight control systems. Your cell phone signals can also interfere with critical, life-saving hospital equipment. And in construction zones, two-way radios can inadvertently set off explosive blasting caps.
A common technique for shielding electronic circuits from external interference is to enclose them within conductive Faraday cages. Named after the English scientist Michael Faraday, these cages are made of a continuous covering of conductive mesh material. Some of the best materials used to construct Faraday cages are expanded metal foils because they are lightweight, flexible, formable and electrically continuous.
When an external electrical field meet the Faraday cage’s expanded metal foil, the electric charges are distributed such that they cancel the field’s effect in the cage’s interior. You can also use Faraday cages to “contain” EM energy within your device and prevent your electronics from disturbing other devices.
Whether you’re motivated by designing a device for the longevity of its electrical components, meeting electromagnetic energy regulations or both, proper EMI shielding is essential to building the best product. With unique needs, however, how you choose to protect against EMI depends on your specific product.
Without basic EMI awareness, you may design products that are susceptible to interference and won’t function properly in the presence of electromagnetic energy. EMI shielding shouldn’t be a luxury, and in many cases, it’s a regulatory requirement.
Identifying 5G Equipment
If you are concerned about the potential health hazards of 5G emissions and want to know how to spot 5G equipment, you may have a difficult time doing so.
Cell phone service providers like AT&T and Verizon are upgrading their nation-wide networks to meet 5G standards, and because they have existing towers it makes sense to install 5G equipment on existing towers. However, those older cell towers are built for older cell phone standards with frequencies that can travel longer distances. For that reason, the towers are higher up in the air and there are fewer of them. So, because of 5G limitations, it’s unlikely 5G equipment would be placed on rural cell phone towers.
Some cell phone towers are designed to look like trees and placed among other trees so they can’t be as easily spotted. This is to prevent tampering and also reduce complaints about towers detracting from natural scenery. So, if 5G equipment is disguised in this way, it would be difficult to spot.
In cities, where cell phone towers are installed on buildings and on towers with other service equipment, it’s possible that 5G equipment could be installed. It would be difficult from a distance without binoculars to identify specific equipment, and you may need some technical training and industry awareness to know what you are looking at. Below is an example of a tower that seems to be shared by different equipment which could include service for police, fire, ambulance and other emergency responders or business radio.
What’s more likely is that 5G units would be placed on street lamps and on street light poles at intersections. Or, mounted on buildings with perhaps a few units serving a city block at relatively low power.
Usually manufacturers spend considerable amounts of time and money on designing equipment enclosures that are easily recognizable from a distance, with their brand logo prominently displayed. This helps market their product. However, due to security concerns, explained immediately below, it is likely that 5G will be disguised and installed in a way to be impossible to see.
Anarchists, Domestic Terrorists, and Social Engineers
There are some people who, for various reasons, attack critical infrastructure targets either for social disruption or targeted strikes. Some 5G networks intended for corporate, financial, military, and government use are targets for anarchists, domestic terrorists, social engineers, hackers, or by mercenaries hired for corporate espionage.
Rather than taking direct action with the risk of getting caught, an alternative form of attack is to incite fearful citizens to take destructive action by spreading rumors and conspiracy theories about 5G such as that 5G emissions can compromise the immune system and thus enable people to get sick from Covid-19. By causing such rumors to go viral on social media and in fringe news outlets, bad actors can get others to do their work for them. It’s a low cost, low risk, broad impact way to create widespread chaos, fear, mistrust, and disruption.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is addressing these attacks as a national security concern and providing support and guidance to mobile service providers on how they can defend against such attacks.
Measuring EMI and RF Emissions
If you are concerned about the impact of 5G emissions on your health, instead of looking for towers and equipment in your neighborhood, you may want to get a meter that can measure EMI and RF emissions that make their way into your home. This is really the most important factor for your health since that is where extended exposure will be. You can find testers on Amazon. [View on Amazon]
CNBC Report (27 Mar 2019)
Below is a CNBC report on the safety of 5G. The description states: “You are being exposed to radiation right now. It’s coming at you from both space and the soil. From water and food. Your body itself is radioactive. And you’re being exposed to microwaves and radio waves, both natural and human-made. WiFi. TV. Radio stations. Cellphones. 3G, 4G and now, 5G. 5G is just getting started. Qualcomm, Samsung, Verizon, LG, Sprint — all these companies and more are right now working to build out the 5G ecosystem. But there is a spreading fear that 5G will cause cancer. Here’s why scientific consensus says 5G is safe and will not harm humans.”
Everything in our world has varying degrees of risk and potential harm – from the foods we eat and medicines we take to the products we use and cars we drive. There are almost always many different factors that determine the level of risk.
It’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that products we use and consume are safe. Consumer groups, government agencies, industry leaders, and others need to work together toward transparency and regulations that will result in lowering risk of harm.
Products that are used by millions of people, may cause harm as a result of the sheer numbers. Even if a product is 99.9% safe, large numbers of people will be harmed because so many people are using the product.
The discussion and debate should be based on scientific data, and should revolve around what we feel are acceptable risks and how do other industries and products compare. For example, if 5G is 95% safe, but other products are held to a standard that requires they be 98% safe, then we can ask why is a 5G product or usage case allowed to have a lower safety standard.
Hopefully this article has been informative and thought provoking. Please feel free to provide any comments or feedback below. Your suggestions can be included as additions or changes to this article.
Here is some additional reading on this topic.
- Forbes, 1 Nov 2019, “The Science Of Why 5G Is (Almost) Certainly Safe For Humans” [View]
- Guardian, 12 Mar 2020, “5G confirmed safe by radiation watchdog” [View]
- Scientific American, 17 Oct 2019, “We Have No Reason to Believe 5G Is Safe” [View]
- Washington Post, 13 May 2020 at 12:27 PM, “DHS to advise telecom firms on preventing 5G cell tower attacks linked to coronavirus conspiracy theories” [View]