The third installment of a series looking at the issue of potential health risks posed by cellular networks generally, and 5G networks specifically.
In Part 1, we examined the potential ionization and thermal health risks posed by 5G. These are the conventional risks recognized by the FCC. In that column, I concluded that both effects were manageable. Ionization is not a risk at mmWave frequencies because a mmWave photon doesn’t have the energy to remove an electron from an atom. Thermal effects were also minimal and could only occur by placing a transmitter next to the skin. Even that situation was easily avoided by using headphones or placing a cell phone in speakerphone mode.
In Part 2, we examined electromagnetic (EM) effects. Here, the outcome was not so clear. After examining a series of studies, I concluded that there could well be negative impacts from electromagnetic radiation. Specifically, I stated that there is enough evidence to show how a causal link could exist:
We know each of the above is true, with each linking to the relevant study. Together they may show a possible link from mmWaves to cancer or other ailments. The key word is “may.” Also, they may not. These risks, however, cannot be waved away as nutty conspiracy theories, or positioned as the New York Times did recently, as Russian propaganda.
I ended Part 2 asking, “So, given that there’s a yet unquantifiable risk, what do we do? Stop 5G until it is proven harmless? Deploy 5G until it is proven dangerous? Something in between?”
This remains a tough question. Furthermore, there are consequences to getting the answer wrong. Asbestos was widely deployed since the late 1800s, only to discover in recent years that exposure may cause mesothelioma, a cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen. That’s a consequence of considering something safe that wasn’t. Alternatively, many parents stopped vaccinating their children after a 1998 study claimed that MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine caused the development of autism in children. This study was subsequently retracted, and later studies showed no link. Many parents, however, remain reluctant to vaccinate their children due to the perceived risk, which puts their children and others at risk of serious illness. That’s a consequence of considering something unsafe that was indeed safe.
So, back to my question- what do we do when faced with an unquantifiable health risk, such as that posed by 5G deployment? I don’t believe that there is an unambiguously obvious answer to that question (other than more study, which I’ll get to in a moment). Let’s go through the two most contrasting alternatives.
To deploy or not to deploy
Stop 5G until it is proven harmless
This is often the default option when appraising risk. As humans, we have a bias towards considering what our actions cause more than what our inactions allow. An example of this is evaluating medications. If we personally had to make the decision, we would be more distressed about the damage caused by allowing a dangerous medication onto the market than we would be in delaying a safe medication from the market until proven safe, even if the latter led to more loss of lives.
One of the issues with waiting to deploy 5G until it is proven safe is that it is often impossible to prove the non-existence of something. This is particularly true when it is difficult to create valid control and treatment groups, and the timeframes for the results (development of cancer) are very long. It is not clear any technology could ever be proven totally safe. Second, it is not clear that 5G poses more risk than 3G/4G, the technologies it eventually replaces.
Finally, what about the advantages of cellular communication? A colleague of mine related a paper from a telecommunication conference in Africa. That paper showed the immense benefit that undeveloped regions of Africa received due to cellular communications. An example was a fisherman who could now know which market to bring his fish to when he got back to shore. This knowledge, which led to more efficient markets, raised living standards and life spans. Was this a proper tradeoff, even if we later discover that cancer rates became a small degree higher? I’ll leave that question to the readers.
Deploy 5G until it is proven dangerous
This is certainly the path we are on. The obvious risk is that once we find it unsafe, we will have already exposed millions of people to mmWave radiation. This was the case with the widespread adoption of thalidomide in the 1950s and 1960s. Thalidomide was marketed as a mild sleeping pill, often prescribed for pregnant women as it also reduced morning sickness. Unfortunately, it also caused severe birth defects. Over 10,000 children were born with thalidomide-related disabilities worldwide. This is the type of risk taken if you proceed without proof of a product’s safety.
The argument that 5G replaces 3G and 4G, and so there may be no net negative impact, is also weak. True, we can’t say for sure if 5G mmWave poses more or less health risk than the current cellular frequencies, but the likely rollout scenario of 5G adds mmWave radiation to the current frequencies, not replaces them. The short range of mmWave cells (approximately 200 meters) demands that longer range alternatives, such as 4G, remain deployed. Furthermore, as a contrast to the benefits of cellular communications in Africa, are we really sure 5G itself will add significant value to our lives over 4G? After all, the first 5G application, fixed internet access, has already been solved with cable systems without any emissions at all. And exactly how many high-resolution cat videos do we really need to receive wirelessly?
One proposal: More EM studies
The above arguments show there is no easy answer. It is impossible to balance the risks and benefits when the risks and benefits are so unquantifiable. Nevertheless, we will do something—and that something is the current path of 5G deployment until if and when we find a more certain serious danger. Right or wrong, that is the defacto path we are on.
My observation from the weeks of study to write these three columns is that discussion about the health effects from cellular radiation is a somewhat taboo subject. Nearly all of the industry papers relate to ionization and thermal effects, which we know can be managed. Even to bring up possible EM effects is considered somewhat kooky. Indeed, there are a lot of kooky conspiracy theories and bad science out there. But that does not mean the whole subject is kooky. There are valid concerns, backed by science, about the safety of EM effects on the human body. We simply don’t know the size and impact of these effects.
It’s time to remove that taboo. We need to recognize that the study of these effects are indeed valid, and welcome these studies as mainstream. In fact, we should encourage these studies. Deploying 5G is a proximate decision that's likely to proceed at a rapid pace. But humans will be bathed in electromagnetic radiation for generations, and it behooves us to understand the implications. Perhaps we’ll learn we are largely safe and be relieved. Perhaps we’ll learn the details of specific impacts and can design future wireless systems to avoid them. But there is one thing for certain—without further study any blanket statement of the safety or harmfulness of 5G radiation is an assertion, not a fact.
– Larry Desjardin is a regular contributor to EDN's Test Cafe. He served in several R&D and executive management positions with Hewlett-Packard and Agilent Technologies.