IEEE PULSE presents

Health and Safety of 5G: Addressing Misinformation

Feature July/August 2020
Author: Cynthia Weber

As wireless network providers begin to roll out 5G networks, in similar fashion to the introduction of other new technologies—from the microwave oven to smart meters—public concern regarding the safety of the technology has emerged, particularly due to the use of new parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Unfortunately, a number of misguided statements by “on-line experts” about the technology have fueled these concerns. In order to help the public better understand what 5G really is and how it is not so different from the wireless technologies currently used by the general population, the Committee on Man and Radiation (COMAR) investigated health and safety concerns surrounding the implementation of 5G and have prepared a paper that provides more balanced information, recently published in the journal Health Physics.

COMAR is a long-standing committee of approximately thirty professionals that work in the areas of engineering, biology, medicine, physics, public health, electromagnetic safety, and hazard/risk communications with many years of experience in government, industry, and academia. The one thing these leading experts in their fields all have in common is their interest in the biological effects of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation such as the radio waves from 5G. COMAR was first formed in 1972 within the IEEE and became a Technical Committee of the EMBS in 1994 with the primary purpose of developing Technical Information Statements to help educate the public about issues related to the safety of nonionizing electromagnetic fields.

According to Jerrold Bushberg, Vice Chair of COMAR and Clinical Professor, Radiology & Radiation Oncology at University of California, Davis School of Medicine, the aim of this project was to bring some perspective to the issue and to hopefully be able to continue a respectful dialogue that considers all relevant points of view, continues to research open questions, and considers the balancing of the health and safety benefits new technology like 5G will bring alongside any potential risks.

“Our principal conclusions were that there is a lot of misinformation about 5G—particularly regarding its potential impact on public health and safety—coming from a variety of sources,” said Bushberg. “Some of these statements were being made by celebrities and amplified on the Internet and by some in the media that had absolutely no basis in fact or science to support it.” One extreme example of such a claim was that 5G was responsible for the COVID-19 epidemic.

“Many in the public don’t understand that the terminology ‘5G’ refers to a set of protocols for how information is transmitted over radiowaves; the 5G technology can be employed over both existing lower frequency cellular communications bands that have been used for years as well as in the much higher frequency range of millimeter waves (MMW),” explained Richard Tell, Chair of COMAR and an IEEE Fellow with many years of experience in government and as a consultant in the measurement of radiofrequency radiation in the environment.

“In many instances, these higher frequencies can be in the range of 30 GHz or 30,000 MHz, and with respect to MMW radio emissions, the transmitted signals have considerable difficulty in penetrating most materials and this includes not only, say, foliage on trees but the human skin as well,” he added. For example, MMW cellular signals only penetrate about 0.5 millimeter into the skin. This means that such signals cannot reach interior organs of the body.

“Our findings suggest that the introduction of 5G technology will most likely not materially change the overall levels of public exposure to transmitted signals by base stations. In fact, an individual’s personal exposure will continue to be dominated from the uplink signals originating from one’s own wireless device as is the case now,” Tell stated. Overall, public exposure levels are expected to generally remain well below the exposure limits set by international guidelines and standard setting organizations including those of the IEEE and ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection).

COMAR’s view is that so long as exposures remain below established guidelines, research results to date do not support a determination that adverse health effects are associated with RF exposure, including those from 5G systems. COMAR recognizes that more studies on the biological effects of MMW signals can be helpful in addressing public concerns over exposure but implores the scientific research community to develop studies of high quality to ensure validity in the results.

In addition, “we hope that education of the public about their exposure to cellular radio signals being dominated by emissions from their own devices can help in establishing a more realistic perspective on the safety of wireless technology, one that is not dominated by fear but by a quest for solid science,” Tell noted.

Zero risk in life is an unrealistic and unachievable goal. All benefits come with some risks. In response, we must seek to minimize risk while maximizing the benefits of all technology. Even when one believes the risks are low or (as is the case with 5G at levels below current safety standards) risk is effectively non-existent to the extent that today’s science can reveal, society has the responsibility to evaluate the risks and benefits to the fullest extent possible with the best tools available so that we may choose wisely.

Dr. Bushberg explained that it is common for people to fear anything to do with the word radiation without really understanding even its most basic differences at the opposite ends of the electromagnetic spectrum. “The light produced by a light bulb is a form of electromagnetic radiation with energy and frequency that is approximately 17,000 greater than that of the highest frequencies used by 5G,” he noted. In addition, he advised that “it would be prudent to remember the words of one of the most famous women in science, Dr. Marie Curie—the only woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize twice and whose research on radioactivity paved the way for numerous remarkable applications of radiation in science, technology, and medicine—when she said: Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

COMAR concludes that while we acknowledge gaps in the scientific literature, particularly for exposures at millimeter wave frequencies, the likelihood of yet unknown health hazards at exposure levels within current limits to be very low, if they exist at all.

***

COMAR is a Technical Committee of the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and operates in accordance with IEEE Policies and Procedures – Section 15 – IEEE Position Papers, Technical Information Statements and Testimony before Government Bodies in the development of documents premised on the work of the Committee. It reports to the EMBS Vice President for Publications and Technical Activities, through the Technical Activities Committee.

Related Articles