The tech world is buzzing about 5G. Wireless companies promise that the soon-to-arrive next-generation mobile networks will transform our digital lives for the better.
But some researchers and medical professionals believe the new technology poses significant health and environmental risks, including increased risk of blindness, deafness, male infertility, and certain types of cancer.
Concerns about 5G have triggered hundreds of protests worldwide at the national and local levels.
The International Appeal to Stop 5G on Earth and in Space, signed by more than 190,000 people in 204 countries, calls on the UN and the governments of all nations to halt the further expansion of 5G networks. Several municipalities across the US are considering bans.
At the same time, 25 states have passed bills that would curtail the power of local governments to regulate 5G expansion. California struck down one such bill, SB649 two years ago.
What, exactly, is 5G, and what risks does it present to human health?
Fifth generation (5G) technology is the newest iteration of the mobile network that interconnects our cell phones and other internet-driven devices. It will operate alongside earlier generations of cellular telecom signaling systems, and it will be used primarily for transmitting data to and from devices. The older 4G networks will still be used for voice calls.
With rare exceptions, most of us aren’t using 5G yet. Though several major carriers promote their emerging 5G networks, the reality is that outside of a very small number of test regions, none of these networks are operational. Even if one purchases a so-called “5G-enabled” device, it will still be reliant on 4G until the new 5G systems go live.
Deployment of 5G has been much more rapid in Asia. According to data from Deloitte, the US lags far behind Japan and China on 5G implementation–a fact that bothers some people, and brings comfort to others, depending on how they view the relative benefits and risks of 5G technology.
According to telecom analyst Bruce Kushnik of the New Networks Institute, Verizon falsely claims it has a 5G network operating in 31 cities at present //medium.com/@kushnickbruce/verizon-claims-31-cities-with-5g-the-reality-is-verizon-has-0-cities-b1c2f24af3e7“>when the actual number is zero, “with only a scattering of PR show places” with very limited coverage
This has not stopped wireless providers from hyping 5G as if it were already here. In major cities all around the country, the networks boast of 5G’s speedier data transfer rates, claiming it will be up to 100 times faster than current 4G networks, a figure some researchers question. The companies also promise better connections, improved capacity to handle greater volumes of data, and major advancements in real-time remote surgery, driverless transportation, and artificial intelligence.
What is for certain is that 5G will provide the foundation for the Internet of Things (IoT), through which as many as 125 trillion wireless devices and home appliances are projected to be interconnected by 2030.
5G advocates say these advances will be possible because 5G greatly reduces latency, the term engineers use to define the microsecond time intervals between when an appliance or robot receives a signal and when it reacts. The shorter the latency, the faster and smoother the device’s reaction
5G…or not 5G?
Some physicians and scientist groups caution that 5G will greatly increase human exposure to radiofrequency (RF) waves emitted by cell towers, smartphones, utility meters, wireless computers, and other wireless equipment––both in their current form and the next-gen versions––and that this presents serious risks to physical and psychological health.
Physicians and scientists like Harvard’s Martha Herbert, University at Albany’s David Carpenter, and Washington State University’s Martin Pall are among those who believe RF exposure is detrimental to human health. In fact, there is a large body of literature showing biological and health effects from both acute and chronic exposures to RF. These experts warn that new 5G tech will greatly increase the risk owing to the higher frequencies to be used, the more complex signaling, and the continuous exposure.
Camilla Rees, MBA, a health educator and environmental consultant, and senior policy advisor for the National Institute for Science, Law, and Public Policy, aims to demystify some common misconceptions about the forthcoming technology.
The biggest misunderstanding most people have is the notion that 5G will replace the older 4G networks. This is completely untrue, says Rees. 5G is additive to 4G, it is not a replacement for it. For the foreseeable future, the old 4G networks will be necessary for 5G to function. Even if wireless carriers do succeed in rolling out 5G nationwide, the 4G systems will still be used for voice and location identification. The new 5G frequencies will be used for machine-to-machine communication, and for data transmission.
Rees says the narrow focus on 5G itself is a distraction from what should be the greatest present concern: antenna densification.
The proposed 5G networks will require many thousands of so-called “small cells”—backpack-sized antennae–to transmit data to and from mobile devices.
“Whereas in the past there might have been a tall cell tower off in the distance, now antennas are being placed on utility poles and lamp posts just outside homes, beaming signals into second floor bedrooms,” says Rees. Carriers are also planning to launch tens of thousands of satellites to transmit 5G wireless signal from space.
Current cell phones use RF radiation at the lower-frequency / lower-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum (0.5 MHz–100 GHz). 5G utilizes much higher frequency ranges, with some wavelengths measuring in millimeters. It also employs novel signaling characteristics like “beamforming,” which concentrates radiation into narrow, high intensity beams.
Wireless providers say 5G requires many more transmission antennae located closer to the ground because the high frequency 5G signals actually have shorter transmission ranges. A typical 4G signal can reach roughly 10 miles from a cell tower in any direction. By contrast, 5G signal has a range of only about 1,000 feet, according to cellular network providers, though this claim has been challenged.
To implement 5G, big carriers like AT&T and Verizon are already installing thousands of the small-cell antennae on existing structures like streetlights, utility poles, or the sides of buildings.
“There is a lack of understanding that the real issue here is densification,” says Rees, founder of the website ElectromagneticHealth.org. “The sheer number of radiating antennas being installed in such close proximity to homes should be alarming to us all.”
To understand what Rees means, consider that currently the big wireless carriers maintain more than 70,000 cell phone towers to cover the entire continental US with 3G and 4G signal. To bring 5G to New York City alone, Verizon must mount at least 10,000 new small cell antennae.
The fact that these antennae are “backpack-size” and “low power,” makes them sound innocuous. Rees and others challenge that perception.
“First of all, they are not necessarily low-power. They might start out that way, but the wireless providers can raise the power at any time, because there are no systems for monitoring and regulating them. And besides, the real issue with RF is not power, it is frequencies and pulsations, Rees told Holistic Primary Care.
Like other telecommunication devices, the small cell antennae emit low-intensity, non-ionizing RF energy. These new antennae will be on constantly, sending and receiving data signals to and from our devices 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even if you choose to turn you next-gen phone off at night, the antenna on the nearby light post will still be transmitting.
Further, 5G will promote the proliferation of millions more RF-emitting devices.
Rees and many others question the necessity for so many antennae. “The truth is, most of what is needed for the next generation of technology can be done with 4G. They (the carriers) want the antennae there for other reasons: data collection; so they can offer TV service and compete with cable; and surveillance,” Rees contends.
5G advocates dispel concerns about risk, typically by claiming that 5G like its predecessors is non-ionizing radiation, and therefore not dangerous. Rees says that’s erroneous thinking based on a belief that radiation is, “only problematic if it knocks an electron off of an atom. That is just not true. The science showing biological and health effects is very clear.”
Physicians Issue Warnings
In a letter to California Gov. Jerry Brown, during the fight over SB694, Martin Pall, Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry, Washington State University, summarized the potential health threats as follows:
- Increased risk of blindness from each of the four major causes of blindness: cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, and retinal detachment.
- Risk of tinnitus, hearing loss, and deafness.
- Increased risk of male infertility and widespread reductions in sperm count
- Increased risk of melanoma, leukemia, and possibly other types of cancer, particularly in children.
- Potential impact on the peripheral nervous system, leading to near universal neuropathic pain and peripheral neuropathy.
- Risk of thyroid dysfunction, because of the location of the thyroid gland near the surface of the body.
- Impact on immune system cells, possibly leading to autoimmune diseases and immunodeficiency
- Impact on erythrocytes leading to stacking of the erythrocytes into rouleaux (long chains) and also erythrocyte lysis, leading to lower tissue oxygenation and nutrient transport.
- Ecosystem disruption, with particular impact on insects (including bees and other pollinators), birds, small mammals and many forms of plant life.
“Mechanisms by which health effects are exerted have been shown to include oxidative stress, damage to mitochondria, damage to cell membranes, and via these mechanisms, an impaired blood brain barrier…constriction of blood vessels and impaired blood flow to the brain, and triggering of autoimmune reactions,” wrote Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD, in her well-referenced September 2017 letter during California’s battle over SB694.
The bill would have eased the permissions process for installing 5G across the state. Proponents claimed it would help meet the “rising consumer demand” for 5G while boosting the state economy by creating telecom jobs. Opponents, like Pall and Golumb, say it would have allowed wireless companies to bypass city and county governments.
Golumb, a professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, leads a research group focused on health issues related to oxidative stress and mitochondrial function.
She contends that broad deployment of 5G will expose Americans to far more and far more continuous EMF, causing greater oxidative stress and all the physiological changes that go with it.
“Following a large exposure, that depresses antioxidant defenses, magnifying vulnerability to future exposures, some persons no longer tolerate many other forms and intensities of electromagnetic radiation that previously caused them no problem, and that currently cause others no problem. But this group deserves – nay needs — the right to be able to avoid these exposures,” wrote Golumb.
“Each new rollout of electromagnetic technology for which exposure is obligatory, swells the ranks of those who develop problems with electromagnetic fields (EMFs),” she argues. “As each new technology leading to further exposure to electromagnetic radiation is introduced––and particularly introduced in a fashion that prevents vulnerable individuals from avoiding it––a new group becomes sensitized to [its] health effects.”
Golumb has assessed hundreds of patients suffering from symptoms that she believes are associated with RF exposure: headaches, ringing ears and insomnia, and longer-lasting chronic conditions including cancer, infertility, and neurological damage.
She and Dr. Pall are not isolated voices.
Just days after Golumb issued her letter to Gov. Brown, a consortium of more than 180 scientists and doctors from 35 countries sent an appeal to United Nations and World Health Organization leaders, asserting that agencies responsible for “setting safety standards have failed to impose sufficient guidelines to protect the general public” from hazardous EMF.
“Based upon peer-reviewed, published research, we have serious concerns regarding the ubiquitous and increasing exposure to EMF generated by electric and wireless devices,” the appeal states.
Its authors call on WHO and UN officials to “exert strong leadership in fostering the development of more protective EMF guidelines, encouraging precautionary measures, and educating the public about health risks, particularly risk to children and fetal development.”
Among the dangers, they cited: increased cancer risk, cellular stress, increase in harmful free radicals, genetic damages, structural and functional changes of the reproductive system, learning and memory deficits, neurological disorders, and negative impacts on general well-being in humans.
Mainstream medical organizations have also weighed in on the topic. The generally conservative American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a statement on the risks to children posed by continuous EMF exposure.
“They’re Not Toys”
Jennifer Lowry, MD, chair of the AAP Council on Environmental Health Executive Committee, said of cell phones, “They’re not toys. They have radiation that is emitted from them and the more we can keep it off the body and use the phone in other ways, it will be safer.”
The idea that cell phone radiation raises risk of serious diseases like cancer is not new, though it remains controversial.
In 2011, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) formally classified RFR as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The Agency cited an increase in brain cancer (glioma) risk associated with wireless phone use as the primary basis for its decision. Since 2011, additional studies have shown cancer risk, prompting scientists—including Swedish oncologist Lennart Hardell–to call on the IARC to reclassify RFR as a “Group 1 Carcinogen.”
Children are uniquely vulnerable to RFR. Some argue that prolonged exposure could be contributing to the rising incidence of childhood cancer in recent decades. In comparison with adults, the smaller head of a child means cell phone RF can reach deeper brain structures with heavier hits of radiation.
The bone marrow in a developing child’s young, thin skull absorbs a roughly 10-fold higher local dose of radiation than an adult’s, report Anthony Miller and colleagues at the University of Toronto, in a 2019 publication in Frontiers in Public Health (Miller, A. et al. Front Public Health. 2019; 7: 223).
The risks associated with constant use of wireless devices stretch far beyond cancer. There is evidence that RF impairs male fertility by decreasing semen volume, sperm count, motility, morphology, and viability (Kesari, K et al. Reprod Biol Endocrinol. 2018; 16: 118). Back in 2009, Ashok Agarwal and colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic, exposed human semen samples to mobile phone radiation for as little as 1 hour. They found statistically significant decreases in sperm motility and increases in reactive oxygen species, though there was no significant DNA damage (Agarwal A, et al. Fertility & Sterility. 2009).
RF may impact female fertility as well. Some studies indicate that exposure to Wi-Fi and mobile phone signals induces oxidative stress that affects both the female and male reproductive systems (Nazıroğlu, M et al. J Membr Biol. 2013; 246(12): 869-75).
All this being said, it is important to put the risk in perspective: not every child––or adult––who uses a cell phone is destined to develop a brain tumor, become infertile, or manifest neurological symptoms. But the exact risks are unclear, and it is difficult to judge who is most vulnerable.
In her letter to Gov. Brown, Dr. Golumb warned that radiation across the EMF spectrum disrupts melatonin production. This hormone, best known for its role in the onset of sleep, is also involved in reproductive system maturation, gonadal function, and pregnancy.
Impaired sleep is the most common and consistent symptom in individuals affected by EMF, Golumb said. Some are able to sleep, but describe disruptions in sleep or poor sleep quality; others have full-blown insomnia.
Heavy technology use can disturb healthy sleep patterns in several ways: EMF exposure impacts pineal gland activity in the brain, depressing melatonin levels. In addition, the blue light from computer and smartphone screens also affects the pineal gland, disrupting melatonin production and impairing sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) explains that blue light can delay melatonin release, increase alertness, and throw off the body’s internal biological clock. “This is an especially big problem for teens whose circadian rhythms are already shifting naturally, causing them to feel awake later at night. The end result? Sleep-deprived or poorly rested kids who have essentially given themselves a mini case of jet lag,” says NSF.
Constant use of wireless technology may also have a secondary and indirect negative effect on cognition.
Mobile devices encourage us to outsource our memories to computers. Our cell phones keep our calendars and remind us of important events. Texting, with spell-check, has replaced writing and many people no longer exercise the forms of memory associated with spelling and grammar.
Tools like “smart refrigerators” can be programmed to sense the food and beverage products they contain, notifying users when their favorite foods are running low and, in some cases, automatically ordering more.
According to German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer, this promotes underuse and deterioration of short-term memory pathways, a condition he calls “digital dementia.”
Rees agrees. “Our dependence on technology is dumbing us down. With your brain, you use it or you lose it. We need to be remembering things and taking responsibility for our actions. Many of us are already deeply immersed in a culture of technology that’s not necessary and is making us less competent as people, thereby needing it more.”
The notion that technology is addictive is not metaphorical. “Devices are like a stimulant. They are dopaminergic,” says Rees, citing the work of addiction psychologist, Nicholas Kardaras, author of, Glow Kids. Kardaras contends that constant glow of device screens can be as dopamine-activating to young brains as sex.
According to the AAP, “Problems begin when media use displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration, and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning.”
Device-dependence isn’t just child’s play, though. Health experts warn young and old techies alike about the dangers of technology addiction––and around the world, “tech wellness” is becoming a big business.
For those seeking support in disengaging from their devices––and willing to pay for it––several companies now provide eco-friendly wellness getaways in exotic locations where participants are encouraged, or even required, to power down.
Digital Detox Asia, a retreat center in Thailand, is among the luxury resorts offering tech-free getaways supported by beautiful natural surroundings, locally-sourced food, meditation, and yoga.
There are also groups specializing in the treatment of teenage tech addiction, including digital detox summer camps for children and behavioral health programs for video game-addled kids.
Minimizing RF Risk
Not everyone can afford a digital detox on the beach, but there are steps we can all take to minimize exposure to RF radiation.
Reducing screen time, particularly at night before bed, and unplugging or turning devices to airplane mode when they’re not in use are a few good starting points. Rees tells cell phone users to avoid holding devices directly against their heads. Instead, use the phone’s speaker function with the device set down on a table (See also EMF Hygiene: How to Minimize Health Risks From Wireless Devices.)
She also encourages clinicians to educate themselves and their patients about personal and community-wide risks of RF exposure. The nonprofit Physicians for Safe Technology teaches health professionals about the potential adverse effects of technology, and provides tools for diagnosing and treating sensitive patients.
The Building Biology Institute offers a number of free fact sheets, and a new online course, “5G: Understanding The Technology & Protection Strategies,” and an EMF assessment and remediation certification training track.
The first-of-its-kind EMF Conference for professionals took place in 2019 in Scotts Valley, CA, with a second event planned in 2021. Another excellent resource is the 5G Crisis Summit, now available free online for 7 days, with many of the leading experts on this subject
Rees encourages practitioners to get to know building biologists in their areas who have expertise in EMF, and to host educational events to teach parents, children, and community members how to use digital technology in safe and healthy ways. Invite experts to talk about the issues in your clinic, or set up screenings of movies like Full Signal, Generation Zapped, Screenagers, or Mobilize. This is a great way to connect with your patients–and encourage them to connect with each other–on an issue of growing concern to many.