Opinion: there have been increased health concerns about mobile phone usage and new 5G networks, but are they justified?

The latest generation of mobile communications, 5G will have a higher frequency and bandwidth for transferring wireless data quicker than previous generations. 5G signals are less capable of traveling large distances so they require strengthening in the form of increased infrastructure such as booster antennas.

The frequencies of the microwave used in many 5G system roll-outs are in the 1-millimeter wave length. Some argue that the long-term health risks of these short microwaves have not simply been tested rigorously and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States and mobile communications operators are simply presuming that they are safe based on 1996 research.

In fact, the International Association of Fire Fighters’ position on locating cell towers and commercial wireless infrastructure on fire department facilities is worth noting. They oppose the use of fire stations as base stations for towers and/or antennas for the conduction of cell phone transmissions, until a study on health effects of exposure to low-intensity RF/MW radiation is conducted and it is proven they are not hazardous to the health of their members. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Nicole van der Meulen, senior strategic analyst with Europol, on how 5G internet access will mean a greater threat to business and personal security

What we do know to date about mobile phone radiation and cancer is that the radio frequency radiation they emit does not increase the risk of brain tumours. However, there is strong evidence that mobile phone radiation affects sperm levels in men. It is a difficult diagnosis to make as the way we use mobile phones keeps changing in addition to the amount of radiation they emit. 

There are new concerns that with the coming deployment of 5G networks, we will be exposed to more dangerous radiation. Most of the research to date has been performed on 3G and 4G networks so we do need to examine if cell radiation’s cancer effects for 5G are different. Regulators will also need to ensure policies reflect new levels of exposure. The amount of radiation people can safely be exposed to is measured by the specific absorption rate (SAR). The current limit for mobile phones is 1.6 watts of energy per kilogram of tissue however these regulations have not been updated for many years.

Radio frequency exposure and cancer

Mobile phones emit radiation of varying power on the electromagnetic spectrum. There is ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. The waves emitted from radios, mobile and mobile cell towers, Wi-Fi routers, and microwaves are all referred to as "non-ionizing" radiation. These waves do not carry enough energy to strip electrons from atoms and molecules i.e. Ionize. 

On the other hand, ionizing radiation is something we control as we know if can damage our DNA so we restrict the amount of X-rays a person is exposed to. However, non-ionizing radiation from mobiles does have enough energy to break our DNA, and cause cancer.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in June 2011, Dr Robert Baan, International Agency for Research on Cancer, says mobiles phones are possibly carcinogenic to humans

Some question this and ask if another mechanism other than direct DNA damage could instead lead to cancer or other biological problems. Beyond specific thresholds, radiation can damage the functioning of tissues or organs and can produce acute effects such as hair loss, radiation burns, skin redness or acute radiation syndrome. These effects are more severe at higher doses and higher dose rates e.g the dose threshold for acute radiation syndrome is about 1 Sv (1000 mSv).

Exposure to low-frequency electric and magnetic fields generally results in negligible energy absorption and no measurable temperature rise in the body. However, exposure to electromagnetic fields at frequencies above about 100 kHz can lead to significant absorption of energy and temperature increases.

Does increased phone usage lead to cancer? 

No-one can definitively state at this time whether mobile radiation causes cancer. The reason is due to our inability to stage the gold standard of clinical trials which is a randomised controlled trial (RCT). In an RCT, test subjects are randomly assigned to one of two groups where one group gets a treatment and the other gets a placebo.

"While animal studies can be a poor way to understand human health, it is worth pointing out that not all research studies conclude that mobile phones are risk free"

To conduct an RCT with 5G and cancer (or mobile phones in general) would be too expensive and possibly impossible as you would have to recruit thousands of people and try to enforce a plan on each one as to how they use their phones for a period of say five years. If that was not hard enough, then you also have to select a group who are willing to go without mobile phones

Instead, we simply have to rely on "observational" data which tracks people’s real-world mobile phone use and their disease incidence. Observational data studies of course tend to be weaker and less clear-cut than experimental studies like Random Controlled Trials (RCTs) but they can tell us about associations between phenomena. To date, the best independently conducted human studies have concluded that using mobile phones is not associated with an increased risk of brain tumours in humans.

5g vs 4G

5G technology is effective only over short distances so new antennas will be required in much more dense patterns than ever before and this will lead to increased radiation exposure. However, the overall exposure is expected to remain low and well within the guidelines from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). Some 5G will use similar frequencies to existing 4G, but other deployments will use higher frequencies, where in those cases there will be less penetration of radio waves through materials such as walls.

If mobile phones caused brain tumours at the same rate as cigarettes cause lung cancer, someone would have spotted it

The global research to date on the cancer incidence data in humans suggests no avalanche of head and neck tumours. It is reasonable to assume that if there was a big risk, we would have seen it by now. In 2012 an independent report concluded that there is no convincing evidence that being exposed to radio frequency fields, including those from mobile phones, masts and base stations within the guidelines could affect somebody's health.

Basically, if mobile phones caused brain tumours at the same rate as cigarettes cause lung cancer, someone would have spotted it. Yes, there are studies out there which have at times pointed to a smoking gun. For instance, one of the most robust animal studies from the US National Toxicology Program (NTP) determined there is "clear evidence" that male rats exposed to high levels of 2G/3G radio frequency radiation developed heart schwannomas. While animal studies can be a poor way to understand human health, it is worth pointing out that not all research studies conclude that mobile phones are risk free.

There can be scaremongering in this area but, due to the difficulty in accurately measuring the effects conclusively of 5G radiation on humans, it is not clear as to who is "extreme". In fact, there was a petition last year signed by 236 experts warning that 5G will massively increase human exposure to mobile phone radiation. The petition had scientists and doctors from 35 countries calling for a moratorium on the roll-out of 5G until independent scientists have investigated the health risks.

From RTÉ Archives, Off the Rails looks at how the mobile phone has become a fashion essential and status symbol

More research that examines the different mechanisms by which non-ionizing radiation may or may not harm our health has to be welcome and should also feed into regulation. For example, mobile phone manufacturers in the United States test devices for compliance with wireless radiation emission standards by placing them against the head, and near the torso with a 5mm separation from the body. However, when we place a phone in our body, it does not have a 5mm gap, so the all-important specific absorption rate will be higher.

READ: Perks and challenges: a guide to 5G

As our exposure to wireless radiation from multiple sources is much higher than even 10 years ago, it is worth considering minimising your exposure to radio frequency radiation. Don't take your mobile to bed or keep it in your pocket and try to use hands-free technology as much as possible.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ