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?
Early in 2019, 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.”
In October 2019, Government agency Public Health England issued a guidance report entitled 5G technologies: radio waves and health.
In its summary, the report reads: "It is possible that there may be a small increase in overall exposure to radio waves when 5G is added to an existing network or in a new area. However, the overall exposure is expected to remain low relative to guidelines and, as such, there should be no consequences for public health."
The PHE has committed to monitoring the evidence and revising its advice as necessary.
What does Ofcom have to offer on the subject?
The UK's telecommunications regulator, Ofcom, has conducted its own spectrum tests to establish whether there is a health risk inherent to 5G technology. It found that emissions levels were well below international safety guidelines.
Ofcom's test took place in February 2020 across six 5G sites in 10 cities. It covered the 3.4GHz and 700MHz spectrum bands in high-traffic areas, including in and around major transport hubs and shopping centres.
The report found that "In all cases, the measured EMF levels from 5G-enabled mobile phone base stations are at small fractions of the levels identified in the ICNIRP Guidelines (the highest level being approximately 1.5% of the relevant level)".
It also found that "The contribution of 5G to the total emissions level observed is currently low – the highest level we observed in the band used for 5G was just 0.039% of the reference level."
As the report acknowledges, we're still in the early stages of 5G adoption. To that end, Ofcom states that it will "continue to undertake EMF measurements to monitor the overall trends in the long term", and will publish any fresh results that arise.
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”.
What do consumer associations have to say?
Consumer choice publication Which? Has compiled a brief YouTube video that debunks the myths surrounding 5G - including its effect on health.
In the video, Which? editor Kate Bevan outlines the crucial difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. She also explains how places that have banned 5G on health grounds "aren't necessarily connected to the evidence".
The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, or ICNIRP, is an international non profit scientific commission dedicated to determining exposure limits for electromagnetic fields. It released fresh guidelines on March 11, 2020.
These guidelines took seven years to develop, and specifically incorporate the higher frequencies that will be used for 5G in the future. According to ICNIRP Chairman, Dr Eric van Rongen, "They provide protection against all scientifically substantiated adverse health effects due to EMF exposure in the 100 kHz to 300 GHz range."
The specific changes to the report are described as 'minor', with the bulk of the recommendations much the same as they were in the previous 1998 guidelines. Indeed, in looking back those earlier guidelines were found to be "conservative in most cases", and to "still provide adequate protection for current technologies".
The additions are mainly for the future higher frequencies that will be used in 5G, and these were supplied to better protect against excessive temperature rise in the body. They include:
- The addition of a restriction for exposure to the whole body
- The addition of a restriction for brief (less than 6‐minute) exposures to small regions of the body
- The reduction of the maximum exposure permitted over a small region of the body
"The most important thing for people to remember is that 5G technologies will not be able to cause harm when these new guidelines are adhered to," Dr Van Rongen said.
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.