5G networks: Are they dangerous to our health? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 19.03.2019
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Science

5G networks: Are they dangerous to our health?

Fears surrounding mobile phone use and the possible effects of radiation on the human body are mounting. As Germany begins a new 5G network rollout, DW takes a look at whether this new technology is bad for our health.

As Germany and the world are set to launch fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks and major telecommunication companies prepare to rollout 5G enabled devices, consumers are asking whether this latest generation of mobile phone communication will be detrimental to their health.

What makes 5G different?

5G, the latest generation of mobile communication, will employ higher frequencies and bandwidth, enabling users to transfer wireless data faster (with rates of up to 10Gbit per second) than older cellphone standards.

Previous 'G' networks have used frequencies between 700 MHz and 6 GHz. The 5G network will operate on frequencies between 28 and 100 GHz. To put that into perspective: 4G is 10 times faster than 3G. It is expected that 5G will be around 1,000 times faster than 4G.

Read more: Germany's 4G mobile network one of worst in Europe

Watch video 04:57

Radiation from 5G antennas – a health risk?

By 2024, Swedish telecom giant Ericsson predicts 5G coverage will extend to over 40 percent of the world's population. 

With an inability to travel great distances or pass through objects, the shorter length millimeter waves used in 5G need strengthening via booster antennas positioned on average every 150 meters (500 feet).

In addition to the mobile phone towers already dotted across rural and urban areas, the need to enhance frequency levels for 5G networks could soon see booster antennas positioned on street signs, street lights and even post boxes (if they still exist then) in a bid to ensure a stable connection for users.

What's what?

X-ray machines used to take pictures of bones are considered high-frequency, while TV antennas, radio station or mobile phone base stations use lower frequency radio waves to transmit information.

Different frequencies of wavelength interact with the human body in different ways, but with a greater number of low-frequency antennas comes increased exposure to radio frequency radiation. 

An infographic showing the electromagnetic spectrum

Cause for concern?

While it might seem as though everyone you know owns or uses a digital device — smartphone, car, laptop or smartwatch — not a week goes by when mobile phone radiation fears are not reflected in the mainstream news cycle. 

Around 250 scientists from around the world signed a petition recently to the United Nations and World Health Organization outlining their concerns that "cellular and cordless phones [2G, 3G and 4G networks] … and broadcast antennas," amongst other radio frequency emitting devices, may produce cancer risks due to the electromagnetic field (EMF) radio waves they produce.

The appeal outlined: "Effects include increased cancer risk, cellular stress, increase in harmful free radicals, genetic damages, structural and functional changes of the reproductive systems, learning and memory deficits, neurological disorders, and negative impacts on general well-being in humans."

Living organisms at all levels, the scientists added, are affected by exposure to electromagnetic fields produced by smartphone devices and transmission towers.

"Damage is not limited to humans as there is growing evidence of harmful effects in both plant and animal life."

A snail on a telephone cable

Humans aren't the only ones affected by exposure to EMFs

Numerous controlled scientific studies of 2G, 3G and 4G technologies have shown that stress, sperm and testicular damage, neuropsychiatric effects, including changes to electrical activity in the brain, cellular DNA damage and calcium overload can all occur in humans as a result of exposure to EMFs.

Sarah Drießen, of the Research Center for Electromagnetic Environmental Compatibility at Germany’s University of Aachen, points to a study from the US which shows a clear connection between strong radiofrequency fields of existing radio standards and cancer in rats.

"If high-frequency fields in the millimeter wave range (30-100 GHz) are used for 5G, there are far-less studies on those than for the known mobile radio frequencies," the researcher wrote in an email to DW.

Tests in mice exposed to EMFs for nine hours a day over a two-year period also experienced changes in their nervous system, including the brain, heart and testes. Increased cell death was also reported. One needs to bear in mind 5G technologies did not exist at the time this research was conducted.

Some researchers argue exposure of young children to emitting devices is much more damaging due to their smaller skulls and skull thickness and the increased exposure to their brains.

An MRI scan of the human brain

Young children might be at a greater risk due to the smaller size of their skulls

Despite this, the World Health Organization's International EMF Project, which investigates the health effects of electromagnetic fields on humans, argues there are "no major public health risks [that] have emerged from several decades of EMF research."

The body concedes, however, "that uncertainties remain."

Read more: European Parliament caps cost of phone calls in the EU 

Reducing exposure

Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) has called for a thorough investigation into the health risks posed by the new 5G technology.

The body used Tuesday's auction of 5G licenses to provide consumers with advice on how they can protect themselves against mobile phone radiation.

A landline phone sitting on a green tablecloth

It might be old-school — but reaching for your landline phone might be the safest option when calling a friend

"Especially in view of increasing volumes of data transmission, consumers own radiation exposure should be kept to a minimum when telephoning and surfing [the internet]."

Authorities have advised those with a landline to use that instead of their smartphone.

Read more: China outpaces US in 5G wireless development

Consumers, the BfS added, should keep mobile phone calls to the shortest possible duration, write text messages and not make phone calls when reception is poor. The weaker the connection to the next communication tower, the more intensively the electromagnetic field of your smartphone works near the person making the phone call.

People should ensure they only surf the internet on their smartphones or tablets when they have access to a WiFi network.

A young woman using her mobile phone and talking with a headset

Using a headset or earphones exposes you to less radiation than holding the phone to your ear

Using a headset to make and receive calls exposes the head to less radiation and keeping a greater distance between the device and the body is also essential to limiting radiation exposure.

A link between cancer, which often develops over periods of 20-30 years, and 5G radiation has not been determined, the BfS concluded.

"The technology is still too young to draw a conclusion."

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