Why 5G Makes Me Reconsider the Health Effects of Cellphones

Thomas Peter/Reuters

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been reading The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. Wallace-Wells, who had me from his first sentence ("It is worse, much worse, than you think"), has done us all the great favor of clearly laying out the incontestable evidence about what warming will mean to the way we live. The book's chapters focus on humanity's ability to work and survive in increasingly hot environments, climate-change-driven effects on agriculture, the striking pace of sea-level rise, increasingly "normal" natural disasters, choking pollution, and much more. It's not an easy read, emotionally. But it forces the reader to look squarely in the face of the science.

Susan Crawford (@scrawford) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED, a professor at Harvard Law School, and author of Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution—and Why America Might Miss It.

Wallace-Wells points out that even though thousands of scientists, perhaps hundreds of thousands, are daily trying to impress on lay readers the urgency of collective action, the religion (his word) of technology creates a belief that, to the extent there is some distant-and-disputed problem, everything will be mysteriously solved by some combination of machine learning and post-Earth survival. We'll live in spaceships and eat lab-printed meat, and Elon Musk will fix things.

I see a parallel in another big news story: the hype and enthusiasm about 5G wireless as the “thing that will make the existing [communications] model obsolete.” 5G is touted as the solution to all our problems—which sounds pretty unrealistic, as I’ve written in the past . (We’ll still need fiber wires everywhere, including deep in rural areas, to make 5G serve everyone, and there’s a real risk that we’ll end up with local 5G monopolies absent wise government intervention.) And there’s a new (to me) angle to 5G that I’ve resisted in the past: What if transmissions to and from 5G cells, which will need to be everywhere, and much closer to us than traditional cell towers, pulsing out very-high-frequency radio waves at high power levels, pose real risks to human health?

I’ve been impatient for years with people complaining about the health effects of wireless communications. The phrase “tinfoil hat” leaps to mind, I readily concede. But I am learning that hundreds of scientists and tens of thousands of others believe that the intensity of 5G represents a phase change and that 5G’s effects on mankind should be studied closely before this technology is widely adopted.

As with climate change, where denial rhetoric has been driven by companies interested in maintaining the status quo, the wireless industry is vitally interested in assuring us that 5G poses no issues—or that there's an unresolved debate, so we should trust the existing radio-frequency exposure standards. That’s where we are now.

So far, the European Commission, focused on ensuring its market players lead the way in advanced wireless services, has rejected pausing to consider the human health effects of 5G. The Federal Communications Commission has acted similarly.

But what if the FCC is measuring public health effects against a decades-old standard that (a) measures the wrong thing and (b) was based on the work of an insular, private group, half of whose initial funding came from the power and telecom industries and that elects its own members? I am bothered enough to suggest that we need better, more neutral standards based on widely accepted science.

Here's the quick summary: The FCC standard for measuring the health effects of electromagnetic radiation is based on whether the exposure, on average, will heat human tissue over short periods (6 minutes for occupational work and 30 minutes for public exposure). That standard was adopted in 1996. (The FCC launched a process in 2013 to re-examine this standard, but its review doesn’t seem to be progressing.) But some very persistent scientists say that's the wrong standard, for at least two reasons: human cells can be disrupted by mechanisms that don't necessarily involve heating, and the standard measures average exposure rather than potentially harmful peaks. They're particularly worried about effects on the skin and eyes of bursts of 5G transmissions that may lead to short, harmful temperature spikes in exposed people. But that’s not the only concern.

Other scientists worry about mental health effects, sterility, cancer, and a host of other problems they say can be triggered by long-term exposure to base stations and handheld devices. Canadian scientist Magda Havas, who studies and writes about electromagnetic radiation and teaches at the University of Trent, asserts that the governmental bodies and agencies that say that "non-ionizing" (effectively, non-heating) radiation is safe and can't cause cancer below existing heat guidelines are wrong; she points to what she calls "sufficient scientific evidence of cellular damage" caused by these transmissions.

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This got my attention: It turns out that sweat glands, right under the skin, effectively act as antennas in response to the very-high-frequency millimeter waves planned to be used in 5G communications—which is why the Department of Defense uses millimeter-wave crowd-control guns. If you're hit by one of these beams, it apparently feels as if your body is on fire. But there’s no lasting harm, according to DOD.

At any rate, the FCC's 1996 rules don't account for long-term exposure or cellular/biological effects that don't involve heating. And the FCC’s standard is based in turn on standards adopted 30 years ago by a private group based in Germany called the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). ICNIRP has been described as loyal to both the telecom and energy industries, elects its own members, and is accountable to no one.

As an outsider, it feels to me that the scientific concern about 5G health effects is relatively underfunded and that there’s a lot of denial and confusion about the health risks. To his credit, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) asked about scientific evidence about the health effects of 5G during a hearing a couple of months ago, titled Winning the Race to 5G and the Next Era of Technology Innovation in the United States. “I believe that Americans deserve to know what the health effects are,” Blumenthal said. “Not to prejudge what scientific studies may show. They deserve also a commitment to do the research on outstanding questions….“ Told there were no industry-funded studies on the health effects of 5G, Blumenthal said, “So, we are flying blind here on health and safety.” At least he’s asking.

This all feels very familiar. If we were wise, we'd figure this out before we go further. As Nathaniel Rich pointed out last summer in The New York Times Magazine, 30 years ago we had a chance to save the planet.

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