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By the end of 2019, 5G technology should begin to roll out. Tech enthusiasts, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and telecom companies tout 5G as the best thing since sliced bread because it will significantly improve wireless communication. Some experts even claim it will spur innovation and job creation. These enthusiasts aren’t talking about the safety of 5G however.
We’ve talked about the safety of Wi-Fi before, but with 5G the concerns are slightly different and many would argue much bigger.
What Is 5G?
5G stands for the fifth generation of cell phones. Every ten years or so the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance releases new standards for wireless communication. These standards are updated based in part on consumer demand.
When cell phones were invented 30+ years ago they were analog (1G) but then switched to digital with the next generation (2G). As the digital generations went on, cell phone signals became capable of sending information faster and faster.
For example, 4G cell phones (what most people have now) are a data stream that is 2 gigahertz and can pass 10 megabits of information, which is enough to stream video.
But the frequency that 4G currently occupies (2 gigahertz) does not have enough room for all of the data 5G will be transferring. Every generation has increased in frequency to allow for more data transfer.
A cell phone that is 5G on the other hand uses millimeter waves and is up to 90 gigahertz (remember, 4G is 2 gigahertz in comparison). These cell phones also include something new called MIMO.
MIMO stands for multiple in, multiple out, which means there isn’t just one stream of data, but multiple data streams. As happens with new technology, 5G is exponentially faster and more sophisticated than 4G.
Pros and Cons of 5G
The benefits of 5G are obvious. A faster phone (or other devices) means potentially being able to send and receive exponentially more information. It’s also going to be more responsive, reducing the lag time (between tapping a link and the page loading) down to a millisecond.
5G will also support more connections. That means that objects beyond phones, laptops, and tablets can have an Internet connection… stoves, fridges, locks, you name it. The intention is to make life easier by creating this interconnected web of objects (Internet of Things — IoT) that can communicate amongst themselves and be controlled remotely. This sounds good to most of us!
However, there are some serious downsides to 5G communication:
- Reduced coverage/ increased cell towers – With every generation coverage has declined, this is because the higher frequencies are more easily absorbed by objects and don’t pass through walls as well. So with each generation, more towers are needed to cover the same area. With 5G, there won’t be more towers, but there will be small cells (like antennas) that will be installed on rooftops, light poles, and other places around the community.
- Reduced cyber security – Because every wireless technology will be under the 5G umbrella, cybersecurity may be affected. With more and more objects on the network, there is more chance for information being compromised. (Learn how to improve your cyber security here.)
- Privacy – Because of the change in tower locations, it will be much easier to pinpoint where you are. For example, if your phone connects to a tower that serves 1 mile of space, you are likely within that space. Turning off location won’t help.
- Health – The main concern (and the one we’re going to talk about in this post) is the potential health issues. The introduction of the 5G network brings with it exponentially increased EMF exposure.
What Are EMFs?
Electromagnetic fields (EMFs), also known as electromagnetic radiation, consist of photons in an electric field and a magnetic field that run perpendicular to each other. These fields travel together in an invisible waveform. There are two forms of EMFs:
- Low-frequency EMF radiation. This non-ionizing radiation has lower frequencies than visible light. Examples include EMFs from microwave ovens, computers, visible light, smart meters, Wi-Fi, cell phones, Bluetooth, power lines, and MRIs.
- High-frequency EMF radiation. These frequencies are ionizing radiation and are a higher frequency than visible light. Examples include ultraviolet (UV) light, X-rays, and gamma rays.
EMFs (also known as radiofrequency radiation) from 5G technology is considered non-ionizing, though at a much higher frequency than previous generations.
Are EMFs Harmful?
It’s widely known that the human body is a sophisticated electromagnetic system. The nervous system, circulatory system, and even mitochondria run on electrical impulses.
The earth and solar system also have natural EMFs. For example, Earth has its own magnetic field, which is why we can use a compass to find the north pole. The sun is also a natural source of EMFs (visible light and UV radiation). Obviously, we live well and thrive with these sources of EMFs.
The problem comes with man-made EMFs. The body’s electromagnetic signals are very weak compared to man-made EMFs. Because these frequencies are so strong, some experts theorize that they can interfere with the electromagnetic systems inside of the body. With Wi-Fi, cell phone use, and other EMF exposure, it’s not uncommon for people to be exposed to man-made EMFs for as much as 24 hours a day so this question deserves some additional research.
Isn’t Non-Ionizing Radiation Okay?
There are many people who claim that since the signals from cell phones, Wi-Fi, and similar sources are non-ionizing, they are safe.
But lack of evidence on harm does not mean there is no harm, it just means we don’t know yet. We haven’t studied non-ionizing radiation the way we have ionizing radiation. To my knowledge, there are no clear studies or evidence proving the safety of non-ionizing radiation either.
What we do know is that there is measurable harm with ionizing radiation (X-rays), so it’s not unreasonable to think there might be harm with non-ionizing radiation, especially because each generation of cell phone leaps us closer to ionizing radiation levels. In fact, 5G technology is one third of the way to ionizing radiation.
Trouble With 5G
While 5G technology is as much as 45 times the frequency of 4G, we don’t really know what that means for our health. Technology evolves so rapidly we hardly have time to notice any effects.
I didn’t have a cell phone until I was in college, and I certainly didn’t have any kind of tablet or smartphone. In one generation we’re seeing a complete change to the electrical environment we live in and raise our kids in. Kids, babies, and the unborn are at the biggest risk based on their size. Current EMF guidelines are based on a 6 foot tall man, not children or babies!
EMF expert Daniel DeBaun explains in this podcast episode how EMF awareness resembles the way we learned about the health effects of trans fats. The research proving trans fats were harmful came out 45 years ago, yet only a few years ago did the public start to fully understand the risk and companies begin to phase them out (and only after a ban).
What the Science Says About EMFs
Despite the fact that research into EMF exposure is in its infancy, health organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) have developed guidelines for how much EMF exposure is considered safe.
These guidelines are in place because there is some concern over the safety of EMF exposure. What we know about the health risks of EMFs up to 4G is concerning enough.
In a 2011 Lancet article, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that, due to the limited amount of research available, EMFs are classified as class 2B possible carcinogen, defined as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” when there is “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and less than sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.”
The IARC explains that short-term studies on humans who use EMF emitting devices are not conclusive (note that studies for long-term use are impossible because the technology is so new). However, in rodent studies that follow the animals throughout their lifetime, wireless radiation was found to cause cancer or worsen cancer prognosis. There were additional observed changes in the brain and blood-brain barrier in these animals.
A 2017 review clearly demonstrates that EMF exposure can affect human health by causing:
- oxidative stress
- changes in antioxidant levels
- decreased learning ability
- cognitive impairment
Additionally, a 2014 study found that even very low-frequency EMFs cause DNA damage and potentially cancer.
These studies make it clear that there is a potential, if not real, threat to our health and environment from EMFs as we’ve experienced them up until now.
How These Health Concerns Grow With 5G
Based on the health concerns we are already seeing with EMFs and the fact that 5G is just going to increase the EMF load on our bodies, it’s not surprising that there are health experts with strong concerns.
According to a letter written by biochemistry professor and expert on EMF health effects Dr. Martin Pall, the potential health effects include the following:
- hearing loss or deafness
- large increase in male infertility and sperm count drop
- nervous system issues
- thyroid dysfunction
- immune system dysfunction, potentially leading to autoimmunity
- low blood oxygenation
Dr. Pall continues to explain that the impact on plants, animals, and insects is as serious if not more so than the impact on humans.
Studies back up Dr. Pall’s concerns as well. A national science panel meeting in 2018 concluded that there was a clear link between cellphone radiation and cancer in rats. This was an unexpected finding that came after the FDA and American Cancer Society deemed the same research inconclusive.
Even politicians are expressing concerns about the health and safety of 5G technology. At a 2019 Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Hearing, Connecticut Senator Blumenthal questioned the safety of 5G. He asked the 5G industry representatives how much money they have set aside for research on the biological effects of 5G. The reply was: none.
Senator Blumenthal explained that Americans deserve to know the health effects of 5G and that we shouldn’t just make assumptions about that safety. He also said that it is the responsibility of the industry to investigate the safety of its products (in this case, 5G).
Exponential Increase in Frequency and Exposure
As mentioned earlier, some EMFs (like those naturally present from the earth and sun) are not harmful. Whether a certain EMF is dangerous depends on a few things:
- Frequency: Higher frequencies carry more energy (and more energy means more dangerous).
- Power density: The average energy of the electromagnetic waves in a given area or volume.
- Strength: The strength of the electric and magnetic fields in the wavelength (higher strength means more dangerous).
- Duration of exposure: The longer we are exposed the more harm is caused.
The two biggest concerns for 5G is the (much) higher frequency and the expected increase in exposure for most people. As mentioned earlier, 5G is going to operate at a frequency of as much as 90 gigahertz while all previous generations operated at below 5 gigahertz.
The increase in “towers” or antenna cells through the community will cause excess exposure too. These cells will have a maximum coverage area of just about 1.25 miles (some cover only 50 feet) so many of them will be needed for relatively small areas.
This means that if you live in a relatively populated area (i.e. not the middle of nowhere) you are almost guaranteed to be living, working, or sending your kids to school near a source of high EMFs.
How to Protect Your Family From 5G Dangers
Knowing all the concerns about 5G and EMFs, in general, can feel overwhelming and scary. Luckily there are some simple things we can all do to drastically reduce our exposure.
While 5G will be rolling out soon, that doesn’t mean you have to jump on the bandwagon. If you just want to be able to stream music or video once in a while 4G is good enough. You can turn off the 5G functionality in your router and avoid buying 5G devices.
Keep Devices Away From the Body
One of the simplest ways to avoid EMFs is to simply put distance between you (or your kids) and your devices. US speaker phone, use your laptop plugged into a monitor (that can be placed about 2 feet away from you), and don’t keep your phone in your pocket.
As long as you can get the signal, there’s no reason your Wi-Fi router needs to be in your home. Consider moving it to the garage or porch to reduce EMFs. If you can’t move Wi-Fi out of the house entirely, try to move it to a location far from bedrooms (at least kids’ bedrooms).
Protect Sleeping Areas
The time that we sleep is actually the most important time to reduce EMFs. Sleep time is when the body repairs and cells can be even more sensitive to toxins. Keep devices away from bedrooms at night. Turn off devices and wi-fi at night too (you can do this easily and inexpensively). This can reduce EMF exposure by 33 percent!
Use Airplane Mode
Cell phones and tablets emit electromagnetic frequency when the receivers are turned on. Exposure levels for these devices are especially high since we tend to use them close to our bodies. If you need to use a device but don’t need to be connected, turn on airplane mode (and remind caregivers and kids to do this too).
Hardwire Instead of Using Wi-Fi
Giving up Wi-Fi in the home can save your family a lot of exposure to EMFs. Consider hard wiring devices instead of using Wi-Fi. Doing this give you more consistent and faster Internet too. It’s more work for sure, but may be worthwhile.
Minimize Technology with Kids
There are plenty of reasons to limit screen time, and EMF exposure is one of them. Since duration is one of the factors for deciding how dangerous an EMF is, it makes sense to set firm limits on screen time.
If you want to go one step further you can invest in some shielding products. This is especially helpful if you can’t avoid being near devices all day (like if you work at a computer!). You can try a Defender Pad under your laptop and EMF shields on cell phones.
Is 5G Safe? The Jury’s Still Out on This Public Health Issue
We just don’t know if 5G is safe or not because there is very little research on current 4G technology (and none for 5G!). But there is considerable evidence that EMFs at their current levels are unsafe, and at 5G levels may be even worse.
Naysayers may disagree, but I urge everyone to think logically about this. If we take precautions (which don’t cause much inconvenience) and find out the EMFs are totally safe (which I doubt) we haven’t lost anything. But if the flip side is true and EMFs (especially from 5G) are causing cancer and other health issues, and we do nothing about it, in 20 years we will have lost a lot.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Alec Weir, who is a board-certified emergency medicine physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
What is your opinion on EMFs? What are you doing about 5G wireless?
- Becker, K. (2017, November 17). Researchers put probiotics in food and supplements to the test. https://phys.org/news/2017-11-probiotics-food-supplements.html
- Kivrak, E. G., Yurt, K. K., Kaplan, A. A., Alkan, I., & Altun, G. (2017). Effects of electromagnetic fields exposure on the antioxidant defense system. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6025786
- Mihai, C. T., Rotinberg, P., Brinza, F., & Vochita, G. (2014, January 08). Extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields cause DNA strand breaks in normal cells. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3897901/