The new mobile phone technology promises to bring huge economic benefits, in the form of superfast mobile services, smart cities and intelligent devices connected and controlled through the internet of things.
It’s no surprise that Europe is racing to create a smart society, with the UK government one of many aiming to expedite 5G roll-out. London alone has nine trial sites.
Network operator EE has chosen 16 cities across the country to welcome its 5G services this year. Vodafone presented the captain of Manchester City’s women’s football team performing ball tricks on stage as a hologram at its launch. And Nokia has demonstrated how robots can solve intricate tasks in collaboration using 5G.
Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, “shares the government’s ambition for the UK to become a world leader in 5G” and plans “to release different types of spectrum bands for 5G as soon as practicable”. The watchdog has committed “to ensure site access and planning are not a barrier to the deployment of 5G”.
But behind the scenes, there is an ongoing debate about whether the telecoms industry and governments are rushing to implement the society of tomorrow, without fully scrutinising the long-term health effects of the electromagnetic radiation produced by 5G.
The radiation produced by mobile phones and phone masts is non-ionising radiation, which means that it does not directly cause cell and DNA damage, through the same mechanisms as X-rays or radioactive particles.
But electromagnetic radiation in high power densities can cause damage through other mechanisms, such as thermal damage by heating the skin in much the same way that a microwave oven cooks food.
Scientists argue for more research
The Swiss Foundation for Research on Information Technologies in Society (IT’IS) is an independent, non-profit organisation that researches the safety and quality of emerging electromagnetic technologies.
The foundation’s director and co-founder, Niels Kuster, says the implementation of 5G will use much higher frequency bands than 2G, 3G or 4G to satisfy the growing demand in data rates, but this induces much higher power density in human skin.
Ernst von Weizsäcker, scientist
His colleague, Esra Neufeld, a scientist and consultant, adds: “The current standards do not prevent thermal damage of the skin and should be corrected in the next revision of the guidelines.”
5G will operate in a range of frequencies known as the millimetre wave band. Neufeld says there are “almost no studies at the millimetre wave range which can be used [to assess] risks” that technology poses for people, and such research is urgently needed.
One of the most renowned experts on environment policy in Germany, professor Ernst von Weizsäcker, goes further, calling for the deployment of 5G to be delayed until its risks are understood.
“We do not know for sure whether the mobile data transmission technology poses health risks, but we cannot yet exclude it either,” he says.
“Thus, we must insist that the health risks associated with the omnipresent radio-frequency radiation for mobile devices are studied before we expose the whole population with ever-rising levels of the electromagnetic fields from this technology.”
International safety standards
With few exceptions, governments on several continents are supporting and promoting the upgrade of mobile telecommunications to 5G frequencies which offer faster download speeds.
Governments, including the UK, take advice on radiation limits from a German-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which has become the de facto organisation for assessing mobile safety and setting radiation exposure limits.
Eric Van Rongen, who chairs ICNIRP, tells us: “ICNIRP establishes whether health effects have been found and, on the basis of that, sets its limits. That is done with a large degree of conservatism.”
Eric Van Rongen, ICNIRP
While many 5G pilots are already under way, ICNIRP is reviewing its own mobile technology-related radiation advice and is expected to release revised limits later this year. ICNIRP is an independent body, which is not subjected to the same levels of scrutiny received by public organisations.
Governments are aware of health fears over new technologies. The EU Treaty and the European Commission refer to the precautionary principle, which should guide decisions to implement products or policies with unknown risks. In the 5G roll-out frenzy, most governments observe ICNIRP’s limits, which set safe exposure levels for electromagnetic radiation produced by mobile phones, phone towers and other radio emissions.
Some countries take the issue more seriously than others. France has prohibited Wi-Fi in kindergartens and restricted the use of Wi-Fi in primary schools. Cyprus has done the same. Switzerland has legally binding precautionary limits that are 10 times stricter for mobile communications installations than those of ICNIRP. Italy, Poland and Luxembourg have also set lower exposure limits than those of ICNIRP.
This cautious approach is not without problems. In Italy, for example, the country’s lower limits meant it was difficult to upgrade 3G antenna sites to 4G without reconfiguring the sites.
But this is not preventing the fast-track deployment of 5G networks across Europe….