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5G Wireless Apocalypse: The RF Health-Risk Conspiracy

by March 28, 2019

Telecommunications providers are in the midst of unrolling all new 5G wireless networks worldwide. At first glance, it would seem to be just another upgrade to existing wireless networks, but many are saying of 5G - this is the big one! The new 5G infrastructure is presented as the wireless network that ushers in a new era in the Internet of things (IoT). Nearly every conceivable industry is exploring the possibilities presented by smart IoT devices and infrastructure that require greater speeds and lower latency. The solution is the fifth generation of wireless networks, capable of higher speeds, lower latency and a dramatically increased capacity for ever more data-hungry devices.

How Fast is 5G?

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the organization responsible for setting the specifications for the new network, each cell should be capable of theoretical peaks of up to 20 gigabits per-second download speeds and latency as low as 1 millisecond (ms). It’s no wonder that at CES 2019, Samsung took to calling 5G - “wireless fibre”.

However, the ITU only calls for individual mobile users on 5G to experience 100 Megabits-per-second (Mbps) download speeds and 50 Mbps upload, with latency as low as 4 milliseconds (ms). But real-world testing has resulted in much faster browsing speeds from mobile devices that have reached over 1GB-per-second download speeds. So, you should expect dramatic increases over the speeds of today’s 4G and LTE networks. For comparison using today’s average 4G/LTE networks, we rarely see over 20 Mbps with latency at around 20 ms to 100 ms.

More Than Just Network Speed

Terminator T-800Previous upgrades to wireless networks were generally intended to provide humans with faster speeds that let us do more interesting and complex things faster as we interact with our devices. But 5G is the breakthrough that’s intended to go beyond speed advantages that are relevant to mere humans. 5G is the revolution of the machines, it’s intended to provide the kinds of speed and low-lag needed for machines to interact with each other. If that sounds like Skynet technology that let Terminator robots crush humankind, you could be right! The coming 5G wireless network will take automation to a whole new level, with devices independently communicating with each other, often operating as nodes within sophisticated infrastructures. This is the network that’s supposed to give us self-driving cars and doctors performing operations through robots half a continent away. But, the jury is still out on the machines rising up to overthrow humanity. But, perhaps these machines have a different way of destroying humanity, many believe that instead of homicidal robots, 5G will kill us all with high frequency radio waves.

A Blanket of High-Frequency Waves

One key feature of the new wireless network is that it will operate at a much higher frequency. 5G will operate within a range of radio frequency (RF) between 30 and 300 GHz, dubbed Extremely High Frequency (EHF) by the ITU. The 5G networks themselves will only operate within a lower frequency slice of the EHF range, somewhere from 24 to 90 GHz. That’s a comparatively significant step up from previous cellular or wi-fi networks, all of which operate at bands below 6 GHz. The frequency range is so much higher, that it changes how the radio waves delivering the network will interact with its environment, and this brings some advantages, but also has its pitfalls.

5G - The Good

First, the good news. Because the new 5G network will operate at EHF frequencies, it will be much less susceptible to interference from other RF sources. The higher frequencies will also give providers enhanced capabilities like beamforming and Massive Multiple Input Multiple Output (Massive MIMO). This capability allows providers to selectively focus service onto high demand areas at any given time. The tech uses phased-array antennas capable of concentrating wireless service into “beams” projected into densely populated crowds of people that need to get busy staring at their phones.

5G AntennaCapabilities like beamforming and Massive MIMO makes for a great analogy to a high-frequency “ray-gun” pointing its waves into crowds, it’s a terrific visual for conspiracy theorists that believe 5G is being unleashed on humankind for nefarious purposes. But, if we take provider’s intentions at face value, the truth is far more mundane. These new capabilities will be used to mitigate network bottlenecks in areas where many users are connected simultaneously. They say they’ll be able to provide service to over a million separate devices per square kilometer. This is great news if you’ve ever been annoyed by network delays on your phone while attending heavily populated events like concerts or convention centers. The new network could also save on total network energy consumption compared to today’s omni-directional network towers that simply spill radio waves in every direction. 5G will allow for a more surgical distribution of service.

Challenges Deploying 5G

5G vs. 4G LTEBecause our wireless data use is jumping to EHF, the higher radio frequency will alter how the radio-waves themselves travel through the air and react with the environment. Providers are in the midst of a paradigm shift away from large, omni-directional cell towers that cover vast areas and instead will replace the old network equipment with smaller, more tactical cells. This requires providers to use many more smaller antennas, receivers and signal boosters that cover a smaller amount of space at a time. This is partly because the 5G signal with its shorter wavelength is more prone to degradation from both distance and objects within the coverage area.

Shorter Wavelength + Smaller Cells = MORE Towers

Each cell in the new network will be smaller than cells in existing networks, but engineers working on 5G will use more cells per-square mile of coverage, especially in cities where there are many barriers to the signals. This makes launching the new network more visible to the public than previous network upgrades that could just repurpose old cells tower. This visibility has lead to concern from anyone who might be uncomfortable with the idea of living next to an active radio frequency (RF) transmitter, because very soon - they’re about to be everywhere!

5G Moral Panic

Take a glance around the Internet and Google is liable to swallow you into a modern-day moral panic around the deployment of 5G. And it's true, the 5G deployment has all the markers of a sweet conspiracy theory. It’s got wealthy and powerful telecom corporations that also happen to be some of the most hated companies in America. It’s also backed up by questionable government mandates like the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It’s a misunderstood federal power that effectively limits civic debate around the placement of cell towers. Today, it seems heavy-handed, but in context, the Clinton-era legislation was originally designed to assist the break-up of AT&T’s monopoly over wireless long distance. But you'll get no argument from me that America is in dire need of an update to its digital communication laws.

Unfortunately, the wild conspiracies involving 5G as a deep-state plot to weaponize EMF can make it seem as if the only people concerned about physical harm from 5G radio frequencies are indoctrinated into a specific ideology. But that’s not the case. Conspiracy theories may run the gamut from claims that the new network is really a secret government plan for mass sterilization to anecdotes about 5G testing killing birds in a park in Netherlands. Many of these fantastic stories can confuse the core topic around EMF health concerns that actually has proponents in the scientific community that aren’t necessarily pushing a narrative involving secretive organizations bent on enslaving the human race.

But first, we should understand why EMF is considered a harmful carcinogen in the first place.

High Frequency RF Radiation

Claims that exposure to radio frequency radiation can harm the human body is a controversial subject that’s been debated since scientists started studying the effects of Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) from power lines. The modern moral panic around 5G is really just a re-packaging of the age-old debate around RF. Anyone living in a modern city today is constantly exposed to invisible RF radiation, often from many overlapping sources at once. The sheer volume of what some call “RF pollution” has been growing steadily with our increased use of communication devices in recent decades. The new 5G network will add even more RF as it runs over-top of all the wi-fi hotspots, FM radio, Bluetooth, radar, and even broadcast TV, they can all contribute to RF.

Although words like radiation, exposure and pollution are generally used in the pejorative, because they conjure visceral fears for our lives. But what we really want to know is whether or not commercial RF represents any harm to the human body.

Ionizing vs. Non-Ionizing EMF

All RF signals, including those emitted from 5G cell phones and towers are a “non-ionizing” form of electromagnetic frequency (EMF) radiation. Everything on Earth emits some amount of EMF, including the Earth itself. Your own body is radiating EMF right now and uses it to send the signals that make your body work all the way down to the cellular level. EMF can even rain down on us from space, so it’s really unavoidable and always has been, even before humans unlocked the use of electricity.

The biggest health concern is found in the highest-end of the EMF spectrum where we find the dangerous “ionizing” radiations like x-rays and gamma rays, these are known to cause cancer if absorbed in certain quantities. Ionizing EMF radiation operates at frequencies well beyond the ITU’s designation for EHF (Extremely High Frequency).

Ionizing vs. Non-Ionizing

Ionizing EMF radiation is dangerous because it operates at frequencies so high that its waves contain enough energy to knock an electron from its orbit, thus creating an ion. And even with my layperson’s understanding of the science, that sounds really bad for living things.

However, non-ionizing lower frequency EMF, which includes RF, can still be absorbed by your body. This happens when you hold your phone close to your head, it absorbs RF given off by its antenna. But so far, the only established effect of RF radiation on your body is slight heating or warming, which is generally considered a good thing. But does that make it okay?

RF and Health Risks  

Widespread fear of cancer caused by RF energy was given a boost by the World Health Organization in 2011 when it classified RF as a “possible carcinogen”. This could be why, buried somewhere in your cell phone’s user manual, there is probably a warning that the phone should only be used outside a one-inch range of your body.

According to the national cancer institute:

“...there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk in humans.”

So, if RF radiation doesn’t cause cancer, why do cell phone manufacturers publish the one-inch rule? Perhaps because it's still an area of science still being studied. According to the World Health Organization, the same group that says RF “may” be a carcinogen, about 25,000 papers have been published on the effects of non-ionizing radiation over the last 30 years. Many of those papers concluded that more research is needed. But the WHO’s conclusion so far is that the current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences, including risk of cancer from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields, or RF.

New Waves New Worries

A seemingly growing movement of scientists are cracking open the window of doubt left by the World Health Organization’s 2011 conclusion that RF radiation is only “possibly carcinogenic” to humans.

Dr. Sharon Goldberg

In October 2018, Dr. Sharon Goldberg gave expert testimony at a Michigan House 5G Small Cell Tower Legislation hearing where she unequivocally stated:

“Wireless radiation has biological effects, period. This is no longer a subject for debate when you look at PubMed and the peer-review literature. These effects are seen in all life forms; plants, animals, insects, microbes. In humans we have clear evidence of cancer now; there is no question. We have evidence of DNA damage, cardiomyopathy, which is the precursor of congestive heart failure, neuropsychiatric effects.”

According to Dr. Goldberg, all RF has a wide range of harmful effects. But the result of the hearing, despite Dr. Goldberg’s testimony was a win for the FCC. The Michigan House of Representatives Energy Policy Committee voted 15-4 in favor of the go-ahead to continue building 5G infrastructure. You can see Dr. Goldberg’s complete presentation to the committee here.

Dr. Sharon Goldberg Testifies at Michigan's 5G Small Cell Tower Legislation Hearing

A recent Ted Talk by a Silicon Valley engineer turned technology health advocate, Jeromy Johnson, explains how we can continue developing technology while remaining safe from wireless radiation. In his presentation to Ted, Johnson offers as proof that RF causes harm, the work of Dr. Henry Lai who alleges that RF frequencies cause DNA damage. 
- Jeromy Johnson, Wireless Wake-up Call

Exploring Dr. Henry Lai’s research brings up the very legitimate danger of relying on studies funded by the telco industry. Dr. Lai claims to have had his findings, in a Motorola-funded 1995 study on RF effects on DNA, discredited and buried by Motorola. He claims his study is the victim of the same industry study-manipulation we’ve seen in tobacco and sugar industries.

But Dr. Henry Lai’s findings on RF DNA damage hasn’t been broadly accepted as mainstream evidence and it received a non-Motorola debunking when his findings were brought to the National Research Council of Canada as described in a 2010 article by Skeptic North. There are many more researchers that believe they have found evidence of harm from RF, but these findings haven’t been broadly adopted. Could it be industry or government manipulation, or is it just a lack of evidence and more study is needed before we can accept the assertion that RF is harmful to humans?

A Spike in Brain Cancer Rates Since iPhones

Cell Phone WorriesThe most commonly stated health risk associated with EMF is the connection between RF and brain cancer. Considering where we stand in 2019, it should follow that rates of brain cancer would have spiked dramatically since the use of wireless gadgets has skyrocketed in the last two decades. For almost 20 years we’ve seen a dramatic increase in man-made RF activity in public spaces with the use of cell phones growing steadily since the 90s. In 2007 the first iPhones hit the market and ever since, smartphone addiction has become widespread. Let’s face it, hardly anyone follows the cell phone industry’s one-inch rule, a phone stored in the back pocket or a bra is an active antenna sending and receiving RF signal almost constantly while practically hugging the body. Almost nobody thinks twice about putting the phone to their head and speaking. Meanwhile, public wi-fi has become ubiquitous with many keeping constant wi-fi signals inside their homes. With these trends, there must be a corresponding rise in brain cancers from RF radiation.

That’s exactly what Dr. Geoffrey Kabat looked for in an article published in 2017. However, Dr. Kabat concludes:

“Looking at the relevant articles, one finds that the incidence of all brain cancers has been remarkably stable over a number of decades in various countries.”

In the article, Dr. Kabat talks about how studies on EMF health dangers can be used to mislead. Some studies, like a Swedish study that determined a 2-to-3-fold risk of brain cancer due to long-term cell phone use, gets plenty of attention. But Dr. Kabat says, the vast majority of epidemiological studies that show no evidence of an association between cell phone use and brain cancer, are ignored.

Dr. Kabat says he went into the study expecting to find increased rates of glioma and glioblastoma, the two most deadly kinds of brain cancer, because they were rumored to be on the rise in much of the first-world since the widespread adoption of cell phones. Dr. Kabat used PubMed’s database and any other published studies in medical journals, seeking an answer to whether or not these relatively rare cancers were showing an increase. He factored several variables into his count, including changes in diagnostic improvements and changes in categorization of cancer types.

...no link between brain cancer and the low-level radio frequency used by cell networks has ever been proved.

Depending on the country, Dr. Kabat found either no change or decreased rates of brain cancer since the late 1990s. He adds that his study does not prove that RF has no effect on the disease. But it is important information that would seem to weigh against the “RF brain cancer” narrative.

Because the telecom industry is so big and powerful, it’s reasonable to expect that many studies into the RF brain cancer link could be muddied by industry money. In an effort to remain free of bias, we should look to independent medical publications, like Science Based Medicine (SBM). SBM is created by the Society for Science Based Medicine and is interested in sharing research in health care that meets accepted scientific standards and aren’t funded by any industry. The publication has consistently weighed in on the issue of harm from EMF, saying that no link between brain cancer and the low-level radio frequency used by cell networks has ever been proved.

One recent study published on SBM comes from Australia, and joins the overwhelming majority that seems to confirm that there is no correlation between radio frequencies and brain cancer. The article notes that:

“Despite the negative evidence to date, in 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified EMF as a “possible” carcinogen. They have a low threshold for this category... It requires limited evidence of carcinogenic potential in humans and inadequate evidence in animals. This is the, “Probably should do more research just to be sure, but basically don’t worry about it,” category.”

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” ― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

No Firm Conclusion on RF Energy

Don't PanicTrying to discover the truth about RF health effects online turns into a Rorschach test of your biases. As a non-expert in science or medicine, and well-aware that I have biases of my own, I try not to hold any firm position and just let the majority of scientific inquiry speak for itself. Much of the moral panic around 5G seems to come from those who believe that 5G will constitute the introduction of something new to our environment, it isn't. 5G will be more of the same RF we've always been exposed to. Perhaps my strongest personal bias is that I am instinctively mistrustful of absolute certainty on any complex issue. But if RF caused physical harm to humans, I assume we’d be in the midst of an epidemic. Perhaps we are, I await the proof.

In Part II of the “5G Wireless Apocalypse”, we’ll explore a different kind of darkness that lies behind the future of big-tech, 5G smart cities and connect devices that are always watching us.

> Next Up: 5G Wireless Apocalypse: Smart City of Surveillance


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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