5G will provide vastly increased mobile network speeds, lower latency, greater capacity and improved coverage across the developed world.
The next-generation mobile network is expected to birth new industries and make fresh innovation possible thanks to its greater capacity and faster response times. To the average smartphone user, it will be like having constant access to an extremely fast Wi-Fi connection.
But is 5G safe? That’s what some have been questioning on the cusp of 5G’s long anticipated rollout.
Why are there fears surrounding 5G’s safety?
All mobile networks, as well as wireless devices such as Wi-Fi, TV and radio transmitters, transmit radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic fields.
These are low-energy forms of radiation, and as such there have long been concerns over the possible health effects of exposure to certain RF fields.
5G brings with it renewed concern, as it will attain its vastly improved performance by accessing a very high-frequency spectrum (millimetre wave or mmWave) that has hitherto gone unexploited by mobile networks. Some have questioned whether these higher frequencies of 24GHz and above will provide an increased risk to human health.
Is there any scientific basis for this?
Concerns over mobile network safety aren’t new. There have been questions surrounding the effect that RF signals have on the human body, and more specifically on incidents of brain cancer, for many years. However, all major reports on the matter have concluded that there’s no discernible safety issue.
Perhaps the most extensive of these reports came from Australia in 2016. Using 30 years (the time mobile networks have been operating in the country) of comprehensive health data for the entire population, it was found that there was no correlation between mobile phone usage and incidents of brain cancer.
Here in the UK the NHS took a characteristically measured approach to that report, pointing out that while the size and quality of the data set was beyond reproach, it didn’t track individual risk patterns (such as the difference between heavy and light mobile users). Nonetheless, the NHS was still able to conclude that “when it comes to other risk factors for cancer, such as smoking, poor diet, drinking too much alcohol and lack of exercise, mobile phone ownership is probably not a significant risk to your health”.
Prior to this, in 2012, a comprehensive independent report by the Health Protection Agency concluded that there was “no convincing evidence that RF exposure below agreed international guideline levels (which the UK adheres to) causes health effects in adults or children”.
Cancer Research UK has also found no correlation between mobile phone usage and cancer in this country. It reports that mobile phone ownership in the UK increased by around 500 percent between the 1990s and 2016. The brain tumour incidence rate during that same period increased by around 34 percent, and even that increase is being attributed to better detection and reporting.
The key difference between non-ionizing and ionizing waves
As we’ve mentioned, the key concern with 5G is that it will eventually use a much higher intensity RF wave than the previous mobile network standards that these reports cover. However, it’s important to draw a distinction here between two very different kinds of radiation: non-ionizing and ionizing waves.
All RF fields, including those used by 5G, are forms of non-ionizing waves. The International Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) defines non-ionizing radiation as "electromagnetic radiation that does not carry enough photon energy to ionize atoms or molecules". This means that they don't have the power to alter the structure of a human cell.
On the flip side we have ionizing waves, which would include something like X-rays. This type of radiation does have the ability to alter human cells, which explains why they have the potential to cause cancer and other health complications.
EE points out that the ultra-violet rays we get from the sun sit right on the border between non-ionizing and ionizing radiation, yet we only tend to be concerned if we receive such rays in high dosages. UV wave frequencies are more than ten times higher than even the highest mmWave frequencies.
What does the UK government say?
Earlier in the year, an online petition called on the UK government to ‘Launch an independent enquiry into the health and safety risks of 5G’. It attracted 32,454 signatures from members of the UK public - well short of the 100,000 required to have a topic debated in Parliament.
Even so, the Department of Health and Social Care issued a 700 word response with extensive scientific references. The lead quote from this statement reads:
“Exposure to radio waves has been carefully researched and reviewed. The overall weight of evidence does not suggest devices producing exposures within current guidelines pose a risk to public health.”
What do UK operators have to say?
Of course, it’s the UK’s mobile network operators that are responsible for actually implementing 5G in this country. So how do they approach the subject of 5G safety?
As both EE and Vodafone point out in their related help pages, UK operators follow the lead set by the UK government through the Health and Safety Executive and Public Health England. They in turn have adopted the international guidelines provided by the aforementioned ICNIRP, an independent organisation that provides scientific information and science-based advice on protection from non-ionizing radiations through a whole range of publications.
With regard to ICNIRP's current stance on 5G frequencies, Vodafone points out that: "In July 2018, ICNIRP published a draft review of their mobile frequency guidelines and said that none of the frequencies used by mobile communications, including 5G, required amendments to their guidelines."
Vodafone has also published a methodology of how it comes to a decision on the safety of its mast technology, which basically involves reading a great deal of independent scientific research. Besides ICNIRP, it also references research from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER).
The operator has published links to a large body of international reports on the health effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields from these major bodies, should you wish to read further into them yourself.
It's also worth emphasising that mmWave frequencies are not being used in the first wave of 5G's rollout here in the UK. But as Vodafone notes, "if it was ever to be deployed in the UK, like any other service, we would still have to ensure that we complied with the international guidelines set by the ICNIRP".
The conclusion we can draw from the evidence above is that 5G is almost certainly safe to use. We can say this because, for all the exciting new possibilities 5G presents, the core transmission technology it utilises is very similar to 4G and 3G before it.
While 5G will eventually use much higher frequencies than we’ve seen before, this ‘mmWave’ spectrum is still well within the remit of the extensive safety tests and independent reports covering the effects of RF signals that have taken place over the past several decades.
More testing will, of course, be done into the specific frequencies utilised by 5G going forward. But as of now, there’s no evidence or reason to suggest that 5G is unsafe.