The Cost of Widespread 5G

As the wireless industry races to install thousands of cellular sites to create super fast 5G networks, questions about the impact of the intense wireless technology on human health may delay its arrival. Do age-old concerns about cell phone radiation hold any water? After reviewing the arguments on either side, it seems clear that jumping to conclusions isn’t the right answer. Instead, being wary of the potential harm seems to be the best course of action, at least for now.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission both say there isn’t anything to worry about, but several researchers have found heightened risks of cancerous radiation from cellular networks. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified cellular radio waves as a possible carcinogen in 2011 and is currently undertaking a “high priority” study seeking a more definitive answer. In addition, the California Department of Public Health issued a report in 2017 titled “How to Reduce Exposure to Radio Frequency Energy from Cell Phones,” which advises citizens to keep cellphones out of the bed and to not store them in pants pockets, among other recommendations.

As a result, there have been a number of regulatory and public initiatives demanding delays or outright bans, most of them centered on the next frontier of wireless development: the rollout of 5G. These concerns have begun popping up all around the world. In Belgium, the government halted a 5G test over difficulty in measuring radiation emissions. Switzerland has also delayed 5G rollouts, and plans to create a radiation monitoring system. In New Hampshire, lawmakers are considering establishing a commission to study the health impacts of 5G networks. The city of Mill Valley, California, near San Francisco, banned the construction of new 5G wireless towers in late 2018. Other California cities including San Anselmo and Ross have passed similar ordinances, citing health concerns.

Wireless carriers, of course, have denied any harmful effects from wireless network transmissions and equipment. Working in conjunction with the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), they’ve set up a website called The page cites research from the American Cancer Society and the National Institutes of Health, among others, which conclude that the technology poses no significant threat. But the main issue, of course, is that the high level of cellphone usage in which most people engage is a relatively new phenomenon. There aren’t any long-term studies about the effects of cellphone usage simply because not enough time has passed since the invention of smartphones.

Getting into the nitty-gritty technicalities actually provides some comfort in this case. Typical 4G LTE cell networks transmit at frequencies between 700 MHz and 2.5 GHz, which is well below that of x-rays and gamma rays, which can cause cancer and other health problems. Some of the new 5G networks will use higher bands, like 28 GHz, which still do not emit ionizing radiation like x-rays and gamma rays. But the issue isn’t exactly with the frequency itself — it’s with the proliferation and proximity of these new towers.

5G is supposed to be up to 100 times faster than current data speeds, but it requires cell phone tower equipment to be closer to users than ever before. Wireless companies in the U.S. say they’ll have to install about 300,000 new antennas — roughly equal to the total number of cell towers built over the past three decades. Their solution to this high demand are “small cell” towers, which are much less intrusive and emit less radiation. That’s causing outrage and alarm in some neighborhoods, as antennas go up in close proximity to residences. Now that these towers will be closer and more prevalent, will the saturation of radioactivity become a problem? 10 high-powered towers a few miles away don’t cause much damage, but what about 20 low-powered towers in your neighborhood?

In the end, the hard truth is that there isn’t a clear answer here. But if the resistance to 5G rollout shows us one thing, it’s that astronomically increasing data speeds across the country will come at a cost. It’s certain that part of that cost will entail allowing tower construction in our backyards. It remains to be seen, however, whether medical bills will also be part of the cost. If the state of California is advising folks not to keep their phones in bed with them though, that’s certainly a hint at a greater issue. One that deserves our close attention.



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