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Is 5G dangerous?

The ultra-connected future promised by 5G has sparked growing concerns.
Some fear that this technology could lead to health problems. Here’s the latest on what science says.

On Friday 10 May, about a thousand people showed up to support the citizen collective “Stop 5G”, marching next to the Federal Palace on the Waisenhausplatz in Bern. They were seeking the immediate adoption of a moratorium on the development of 5G antennas. This new demonstration is proof of a growing wave of dissent against the latest generation of mobile telephony in Switzerland. At the time that this article was written, 61,710 people signed the petition “against 5G” and a survey conducted in mid April by the magazine L’Illustré showed that 54% of Swiss residents feared that 5G waves could be harmful to their health.

Operators are dismissing the concern. “We’ve already done this,” said Urs Schaeppi, CEO of Swisscom at a press conference on 10 April. “Some people were asking the same questions about 3G. And no health risks have been shown.” Olaf Swantee, CEO of Sunrise, told us exactly the same thing. In short: keep moving, nothing to see here!

“Operators are trying to make us believe that 5G has no risks, that it’s exactly like 3G or 4G. But that’s not true,” said Olivier Bodenmann, a Vaud engineer who is very active in the Stop 5G movement. “This technology has never been tested. So the people will be guinea pigs without our consent.”


More than 25,000 scientific articles have been published on the impact of radio frequencies used by mobile telephones


To try to calm the uproar, the government tasked the Federal Office for the Environment (OFEV) in September 2018 to conduct a study on “the risks of launching 5G networks”. The results will be published this summer. “It’s strange to just be doing research now when operators have already launched 5G and the network is growing every day. Shouldn’t we have studied the potential effects beforehand?” asked Bodenmann. “Furthermore, the impartiality of the government is questionable, considering it has already sold 5G frequencies to operators.”

So what’s the truth? Over the last 30 years, more than 25,000 scientific articles have been published on the impact of radio frequencies used by mobile telephones. “Some believe that this research is insufficient, but the scientific knowledge acquired on this subject is now much more than we have on most chemical products,” said WHO, before affirming: “As of now, no undesirable health effects attributable to prolonged exposure to radio frequencies have been confirmed.”

This conclusion was refuted by opponents who bring up several research articles, some of which are worth citing. In November 2018, for example, the very official US National Toxicology Program (NTP) published the results of a study that was presented as the largest study ever done on the subject. Conducted over nearly 10 years for approximately $30 million, the study shows that male rats exposed to radio frequencies of 900 MHz, used by 2G and 3G, have a higher chance of developing certain types of brain cancers.

But surprisingly, the female rats were spared. Even more surprising is that the life expectancy for male rats exposed to the radio frequencies was higher than the control group... “We believe that the link between radio frequencies and tumours in male rats is real,” wrote the authors. “But these results cannot be transposed to humans, especially because the rats received waves all over their bodies which has never been the case for telephone use.”

One of the largest studies on humans, known as “Interphone”, was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2010. The results showed that no increased risk of tumours was observed after using a mobile telephone over 10 years. Some of the data suggest an increased cancer risk for people who use mobile phones the most, but due to bias and errors, no conclusion can be made. Faced with this uncertainty, WHO advised to limit exposure to radio waves and decided to classify radio waves as “possibly carcinogenic for humans” in 2011, even though it believes “no significant risk increase has been proven in adults or children, regardless of the type of cancer”.

Is 5G different than previous generations? More toxic? “In Switzerland, the frequencies used for 5G are very similar to those for 4G,” said physician Pierre Zweiacker, author of Vivre dans les champs électromagnétiques [Living in electromagnetic fields] and former head of the Electromagnetic Compatibility Laboratory at EPFL. “From this perspective, the situation will be very similar to what we know today. So 5G will not be more dangerous than 4G.”

Indeed, the frequencies currently used in Switzerland for mobile telephones (2G, 3G and 4G) range from 800 to 2,600 MHz. 5G extends this range slightly, from 700 to 3,600 MHz. But it is a known frequency, as WiFi frequencies go up to 5,000 MHz.

However that is likely to change. In the current spectrum, 5G speeds cannot exceed 2 Gbit/s. But promoters of this technology have promised speeds of 10 Gbit/s to 30 Gbit/s. To reach that speed, it will be necessary to use “in the longer term an even higher range of frequencies (the range of tens of gigahertz), also called millimetre waves”, wrote the federal government in a letter to the Cantons on 17 April 2019. While no timeline has been set, the prospect is concerning. “Millimetre frequencies are much more unknown in the telephone industry,” said Zweiacker. So new studies will have to be done to prove they are harmless, even though these frequencies are already used in other technologies such as radar and radio navigation.


Currently Switzerland does not have a system to measure 5G waves


Another issue brought up by 5G opponents is the number of antennas. Currently, approximately 19,000 locations host nearly 35,000 relay antennas in Switzerland, i.e. one antenna for every 230 residents. “With 5G, the number of relay antennas will increase because as wave frequencies get higher, their reach decreases,” said Zweiacker. “Nevertheless, the legal limits remain unchanged. So exposure will still be below recommended levels.”

Implemented in 1999, the Ordinance on Protection against Non-Ionizing Radiation (ORNI) limits antenna emissions to 4 to 6 volts per metre (V/m) and exposure, which is what humans receive, to 28 to 61 V/m depending on the frequencies. For years, operators have lobbied intensely to raise these limits. They haven’t been successful yet.

But the issue still stands: currently Switzerland does not have a system to measure 5G waves, particularly due to the fact that adaptive antennas will be used, which direct waves towards users, whereas traditional antennas just radiated waves everywhere. Therefore, how can the government ensure that radio frequency levels are below the authorised limits?

“We don’t know how to measure the emissions from these antennas, but they’re being built regardless,” said Bodenmann. “I worry that measuring methods will change so that 5G stays within the legal limits.” “When 3G (UMTS) and 4G (LTE) were introduced, measuring methods could only be developed once these technologies were already in place, which took several months each time,” reassured the federal government in its letter to the Cantons.

But deep down, perhaps people are angry for a different reason: “I’m not against the technology,” said Bodenmann. “But what’s the purpose of always going faster? 4G is generally sufficient for the vast majority of the population. 5G was invented to make us consume more, force us to buy new smartphones and connected objects... without worrying about the impact of radio waves on our health. It makes no sense.”

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