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5G has become a reality and tackling its benefits will be redundant at this stage. What is more important is to discuss the health impact of this technology and the repercussions of being exposed to radio-frequency, which is currently raising concerns among countries where the technology is already being deployed.

In order to increase the volume of data transferred, the fifth generation technology will use a frequency band higher than the one currently used for mobile – starting from 3.4 GHz at first, to reach then more than 26 GHz. The higher the frequency, the shorter the range of waves. This is why it is necessary to increase the number of antennas which is why many NGOs are worried.

“In spite of numerous research, nothing shows until now that being exposed to low intensity electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health,” stated the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the short term, this type of exposure that still isn’t proven harmful is equivalent to the exposure to mobile phones, according to Olivier Merckel, expert at the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) that published in 2013 a risk assessment report on radio frequencies.

On the other hand, some studies tackle the potential increase of risk for suffering from a cerebral tumor on the long term for heavy users of mobiles. This has led the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a WHO agency, to say in 2011 that radio frequencies “might be carcinogenic for human beings” and recommend the use of hands-free mobile kits. In addition, in a 2016 report, the ANSES estimated that frequency waves by mobiles, tablets or connected objects can have a certain impact on children’s cognitive functions such as memory, attention and coordination. The Agency has thus recommended to limit their exposure to such devices.

The frequency bands meant for initial ongoing 5G deployment – around 3.5 GHz “are close to the ones currently used for 4G or WiFi,” says Merckel. However, it’s going to be different for the bands that will be used later on which start at 26 GHz, called 5G millimeter waves.

“As of 10 GHz, the electromagnetic energy doesn’t practically penetrate the body but is concentrated at skin level which raises different questions in relation to the potential effects on health,” Merckel explains.

In 2012, the ANSES evaluated the risks posed by body scanners used in airports which also function on millimeter waves. The results showed that those types of scanners don’t present any kind of risk on health. However, even though the waves are of the same type, the usage is different: with 5G, the exposure to the public will be much larger.

According to Merckel, the ANSES is set to launch an expert report on the potential effects of 5G signals and hopes to finish it by the end of 2020.

In an interview with Telecom Review, Bilel Jamoussi, chief of study groups department at TSB in the ITU, discussed the side effects of 5G radiation emissions on human health and explained the role of the ITU in this context.

“Recently, there has been a big debate on 5G and EMF, so one of our study groups, study group 5 in particular, developed a report that tackles the EMF issue in the context of 5G. We used MIMO antennas and higher frequencies, and therefore, created a denser network with more radios and studied how it could have an impact on measuring those,” he said.

Jamoussi explained that the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which is comprised of experts in healthcare and the ICT fields, develops the limits of the impact on the health of human body and then goes to the WHO, which develops the resolution on the health impact and the limits of the power and the frequencies that are used. The ITU takes those WHO resolutions and creates recommendations on how to measure those exposure limits and ensure that the base stations and devices are adhering to the limits.

He confirmed that the ICNIRP is currently working on publishing a new set of limits which is an updated version of the ones published a few years ago. The ITU will then take them into account to elaborate on the adequate recommendations.

Protesting against 5G

In February, Switzerland attributed 5G frequencies to three major operators - Swisscom, Sunrise and Salt - and the operators have been pushing the cutting-edge technology in television advertisements and on billboards. The country is now among the first to launch 5G. By early July, 334 antennae stations for 5G were operational across the country. However, thousands of people protested in the Swiss capital, Bern, for fear that rolling out the 5G network could damage people's health.

Protesters gathered in front of the Swiss parliament building in a bid to stop the construction of more 5G-compatible antennae. Online petitions have helped persuade several Swiss cantons - in Geneva, Vaud, Fribourg and Neuchatel - to postpone the construction of antennae as a precaution.

Critics in Switzerland argue that the electromagnetic radiation the new system emits poses unprecedented health and environmental risks compared to previous generations of mobile technology. The Swiss Federation of Doctors (FMH) has also argued for a cautious approach to the new technology.

Fears over the health impact of 5G radiations were also expressed in the UK, notably in Glastonbury, Frome and Brighton and Hove. Many councils have been considering blocking 5G over some health concerns that were raised by a variety of citizen health campaigns.

The UK government announced that it plans to change the story of 5G and health myths. This comes as local authorities have stopped installing masts due to citizen campaigns.

Matt Warman, the Minister for Digital and Broadband in the UK, called all UK planning authorities to not block the country’s 5G rollout without “legitimate grounds and evidence” citing the health dangers of 5G. He also added, “There is no compelling evidence for any increased concern about 5G rollout compared to WiFi, 3G or 4G, and there are well-established limits for radio equipment within which any new kit must operate. These limits are acknowledged by Public Health England in the UK and the World Health Organization.”

Warman stated, “Safety is always going to be paramount when we rollout new technologies and innovations, but there is currently no compelling evidence to back up concerns about 5G. We want to support work that will bust health myths over 5G and provide evidence-based reassurance to the public. The benefits of 5G are huge – both to people’s everyday lives and to the economy.”

EU 5G Appeal

In September 2017, doctors and scientists launched the 5G Appeal, a petition which calls for the EU to impose a moratorium on 5G rollout, citing imminent health dangers like increased cancer risks, cellular stress and genetic damage.

“We, the undersigned, scientists and doctors, recommend a moratorium on the rollout of the fifth generation, 5G, for telecommunication until potential hazards for human health and the environment have been fully investigated by scientists independent from industry. 5G will substantially increase exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) on top of the 2G, 3G, 4G, WiFi, etc. for telecommunications already in place. RF-EMF has been proven to be harmful for humans and the environment,” the petition reads.

As of November 4, 2019, 261 scientists and medical doctors have signed the appeal. The 5G Appeal is still open for endorsement for scientists.  

There is certainly evidence that ties RF-EMF exposure to a small increase in the risk of developing certain cancers and other adverse health outcomes. However, studies are still underway to prove to what extent this risk is harmful.

Living in densely populated areas means being exposed to different radio waves zipping through the air, whether 5G was deployed or not. We are exposed every minute to radio emissions from our cell phones and connected devices we use. Specialized organizations, including the WHO and the FDA, have always recommended to limit the time we spend on cell phones and called upon parents to limit their children’s use of mobile devices.

Ever since mobile phones were invented, there have been concerns regarding their negative effect on health, whether it was with 2G, 3G or 4G. One thing is different with 5G, and that’s millimeter waves.

More research and studies should be undertaken at this stage to delve into the risks that 5G radiation can pose to  consumers’ health, especially that some countries have already launched the network. Measures then can be taken to protect consumers from any potential risk.

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