The timing couldn’t be any better for 5G technology to appear on the scene. Not because the fifth generation (hence, 5G) of mobile networking will connect people with each other—and all of their gizmos and gadgets—faster and better than ever before.
It’s certainly cool, even for the multitude of us who will never understand how it all works, that San Jose struck an auspicious deal to enable what’s being called the nation’s largest deployment of the new technology.
Telecom companies will pay the city $750 for each light pole they equip with 5G antennas; San Jose will put the $2.2 million a year in estimated proceeds into a “Digital Inclusion Fund” to bring broadband to 95,000 local households that have gone without internet access in the purported Capital of Silicon Valley.
So yeah, there’s a lot to be excited about. We’re on the brink of blazing-fast wireless broadband. But part of the beauty in 5G’s timing is that it’s also kinda scary. It’s a Shiny New Thing for our already frightening times.
Let me explain. Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare educated a nation in paranoia. Watergate taught Americans that even our highest-ranking leaders couldn’t be trusted. And now, we live in a golden age of not being able to trust anyone or anything. Electronic devices eagerly divulge our personal info to the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Russian hackers. In-home devices with sultry voices (Alexa and Siri) listen to our personal conversations and pass the gory details along to who-knows-where.
Beyond data breaches and techno-spying, though, are growing fears that tech advances come with big health risks. In the era of “fake news”—borne of a Sharpie-clutching president who thrives on conspiracy theories—public trust in supposedly trustworthy sources is at an all-time low, and public paranoia on a range of hot-button issues (vaccinations, for example) is the order of the day. Pythagoras and Aristotle must be spinning in their graves—or at least texting about reports of Russian hackers ginning up health risks of 5G to further divide Americans.
A quick spin through the history of 5G: It’s the fifth generation of mobile networks—1G gave you analog voice service via old-timey cell phones; 2G upped the ante to digital service, making it fancier and more reliable; 3G allowed for access to mobile data (streaming, email); while 4G provides for a portable internet to accompany cell service.
Provided it bypasses growing opposition to purported health risks, 5G will offer new levels of performance and efficiency to all mobile broadband services—and supposedly for cheaper rates.
Proponents and lobbyists compare the advent of 5G to innovations like the automobile and electricity. The same people also say once 5G is embraced globally (by 2035) it will potentially produce up to $12 trillion worth of goods and services and create some 20 million jobs. That’s the job of proponents and lobbyists—someone probably said similar things about eight-track players back in the day.
It doesn’t help that we live in strange times, or that President Donald Trump attempts to turn back every Obama-created plan to protect Americans from dirty water and air. Trump lifts bans on menacing chemicals. He champions asbestos. He rejected climate change as a hoax, and coddled the coal industry. The list is sort of endless, and 5G naysayers make at least one credible point: The government surely isn’t going to look out for their health and safety. Not this government, anyway.
Government brush-offs of health concerns are nothing new. PG&E’s SmartMeters were supposed to improve the utilities’ ability to collect data, but some Californians complained of headaches and other maladies when meters were installed. The California Public Utilities Commission, historically a rubber-stamp for PG&E interests, negated those complaints as delicately as a bulldozer. They dismissed the concerns and called it dumb science, which is another way of saying “fake news.”
With that in mind: Are there genuine health risks associated with 5G?
The Russians want you to think so.
Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 to 2017, recently presented a paper on the topic. Wheeler’s with the Brookings Institution these days, and his paper lays down the history of litigation around claims of health risks that have been a part of the cell phone revolution since the outset.
Lawsuits alleging adverse health effects from cell phones have been rejected by the courts under the so-called “junk science” standard. The Food and Drug Administration’s analysis of the debate echoes conclusions reached by numerous courts that have adjudicated the matter: “The majority of studies published have failed to show an association between exposure to radio-frequency from a cell phone and health problems.”
According to a well-traveled New York Times story published last year that’s cited by Wheeler in his Brookings blog, the Russians are trying to confuse matters: “Now, the Russian disinformation campaign has embraced this as a means of further sowing dissent in our nation.” Wheeler argues that “RT America—the Kremlin’s principal propaganda outlet in this country—has been describing 5G as a Dangerous Experiment on Humanity and warning of adverse health consequences. RT America has been alarming its viewers with warnings ‘it might kill you.’”
Wheeler was unavailable for further comment, says a Brookings spokesperson.
While the Russians reportedly spread fear, American scientists struggle to dispel falsehoods about 5G—or at least conduct research that puts health risk into context without being charged with being a shill for the Telecom industry.
Dr. Steven Novella is founder and executive director of the Science-Based Medicine blog. He’s an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, an author and host of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast.
The professor recently offered an online explainer on 5G’s potential vs. its threats. He did not respond to requests for further comment.
“Imagine if a new technology was being proposed that would provide a substantial convenience, to the point that most people would use it in one form or another, and our economic infrastructure would be reshaped around this new technology. However, the technology involves some risk and scientists estimate that 50,000 people in the US would die each year as a consequence of its widespread use. There is even risk to people who do not use the technology. With optimized safety measures and regulations, we could get this number down to 35,000 or so. Would the new technology be worth the risk?”
Novella wasn’t talking about 5G. He was talking about cars.
“In 2017 in the US, 37,000 people were killed in automobile accidents. The point is that we accept some risk along with the convenience of some modern technologies. This context is important as we consider adopting new technologies. Nothing is without risk, and the best we can do is minimize risk, and consider the overall risk–to–benefit ratio of any new technology. Demanding zero risk, however, is unrealistic and will likely cause more harm than it prevents,” he writes.
Novella highlights the promise of 5G—faster communication, decreased lag times—as he argues that the health-impact controversy over 5G’s risks are a question of context. “There is some controversy about the science itself,” he writes, “but mainly opinions vary in terms of how to interpret the implications of that risk.”
He calls for further research into the issue of EMF exposure, given that “the only proven biological effect of exposure to EMF, even at 5G frequencies, is slight tissue heating. There are many other effects hinted at in the research, but none have been reliably replicated and therefore are not established. Further, many of the biological effects are simply looking at changes in markers of biological activity.”
Novella’s point is that anti-5G research efforts to date “don’t show actual hazard, just the potential for hazard if we make a chain of assumptions about what the markers mean.” He’s calling for more research even as he drills down on the “speculative hazards” associated with the 5G rollout.
The majority of scientists, including organizations and regulatory bodies like the National Cancer Institute, the FDA and the EPA, look at this research and conclude that the hazard is minimal and current safety limits are adequate. But some scientists have looked at this same data and come to a different conclusion, emphasizing extreme caution.
“The bottom line is that the consensus is that there isn’t much potential hazard from 5G, but there is a lot of speculative hazard that is driving a lot of the media concern,” Novella says. “We do need to continue to do research, as 5G technology changes, so this will be an evolving area that does need monitoring.”
At present, however, Novella sees no reason to ban the technology.
Jennifer Wadsworth also contributed to this report.