In our lifetimes, the world has paved the way for the single most dominating aspect of current culture: the smartphone.
What was once a means of calling friends and family members with the luxury of privacy and portability is now a relied-upon source for multi-platform communication, work tools, and evergreen entertainment options.
The shift into a more digitally literate world has prompted rapid growth in smartphone capacities as technological demands push innovation along at a dizzying rate.
But, as it happens, the world is about to get even faster.
Carriers began rolling out 5G smartphones to select cities in 2018 and have since expanded into other cities this year. More comprehensive rollouts are expected in 2020, which will likely popularize the high speed cellular technology. Iterations of the technology, however, will continue on for the better portion of the next decade.
So, why all the buzz?
5G takes a stride past its predecessor, 4G, with instantaneous speeds enabling faster communication and downloads. It has also been posited that the technology will even enable autonomously-driving vehicles, delivery drones, and replacements for wifi in home and office.
The subsequent large-scale innovation of 5G will most certainly change the way humans interact with the world on a day-to-day basis, but it will also allow society to maintain current mobile broadband efficacy.
Many smartphone carriers are currently maximizing LTE capacities in major metropolitan areas, as noted by The New York Times. Users already experience delays in 4G speeds during busy times of the day in heavily populated regions. The introduction of 5G is expected to mitigate this issue.
So, it’s easy to understand why 5G is so anticipated. People want phones that function faster, and 5G’s ability to harness the millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum is unprecedented. Millimeter waves, also known as extremely high frequency (EHF), are a band of radio frequencies that allow transmission on frequencies between 30 GHz and 300 GHz.
This is a staggering contrast to the frequencies used by current mobile devices using 4G LTE which send transmissions on frequencies below six GHz.
Though many revel at the implications of faster smartphones, others believe faster phones may present health hazards.
Among the current tech machines using millimeter wave radiation, airport scanners are one of the most well-known.
All flyers must past through these full-body scanners which search for hidden weapons and devices using radio waves at frequencies between 24 and 30GHz. While skeptics questioned the dangers that consequent radiation exposure might pose to human health, scientists were quick to dismiss concerns.
Time cited Andrew Maidment, an associate professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, who explained that machines causing radiation exposure are only dangerous when “they’re powerful enough to cause molecular changes.”
The radiation emitted by millimeter wave scanners at airports doesn’t come close to that level of power.
Unfortunately, science can’t say the same for growing 5G transmission in homes, schools, and cars, as 5G devices are slowly introduced to consumers everywhere. The lack of research on the potential dangers of widespread radiation exposure from 5G are troubling.
Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) say there’s nothing to be worried about, other organizations aren’t so quick to approve. In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that cellphones may cause some brain cancers.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an intergovernmental agency that makes up part of the WHO, conducted a study assessing radio frequency electromagnetic fields and whether they are carcinogenic to humans.
They reported that their findings were “evaluated as being limited among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers.” The researchers added that “one study of past cell phone use (up to the year 2004) showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users.”
The FDA and FCC may deem a consumer device healthy until proven hazardous, but Dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, Jonathan Samet, does not agree.
“A classic definition of safety is as follows: a thing is safe if its risks (can be) judged to be acceptable,” said Samet. Radiation exposure from 5G has not yet been proven to be acceptable. “ Right now, I don’t think we have anywhere near certain enough understanding of what the risks are,” Samet added.
While potential risks of 5G remain unknown, government agencies may have refuted the idea that it could cause harm because cellphone radiation is typically categorized as non-ionizing radiation, as opposed to ionizing radiation.
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, non-ionizing radiation, which is connected with everything from computers to microwave ovens, is typically seen as harmless.
On the other hand, ionizing radiation, such as that from ultraviolet radiation or x-ray machines, can “under certain circumstances, lead to cellular and or DNA damage with prolonged exposure.”
The reason it is so dangerous to presume 5G is safe by grouping it into a category with other cellphones and their risks, or lack thereof, is because 5G cell towers emit higher frequency radio waves, which could have a different effect on the brain than lower frequency radio waves that are used for 4G transmission.
Vox also noted that 5G signals are weaker at traveling long distances, which means more cellphone towers must be built with close proximity to one another to resolve this issue.
Last year, CBS News reported that U.S. wireless companies will need to install around 300,000 new antennas, which is roughly equal to the total number of cell towers built over the past three decades.
There is also concern about our lack of understanding of the impact cellphone radiation can have on the human body due to the lack of research.
Current research is limited, and the results have been mixed.
In 2018, the National Toxicology Program, an interagency program of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, released the results of a congressionally-mandated study that analyzed the effects of 2G and 3G cellphone radiation on rats and mice.
Scientists, who conducted the experiment over a period of 10 years, found “clear evidence” of tumors in the hearts of male rats and “some evidence” of tumors in the brains and adrenal glands of male rats. It was unclear if tumors were found in female rate or mice of either gender.
A study from the Ramazzini Institute in Italy produced similar results.
It is worth noting that the National Toxicology Program (NTP) reported that male rats exposed to radiation experienced “longer lifespans.”
Dr. Michael Wyde of the NTP clarified, however, that these studies “were conducted with whole-body exposures to evaluate the potential hazard to exposure across the entire body and not just particular regions. The NTP has stressed that their study was not designed to address the concern of human exposure to 5G radiation.
If the study were tailored to address the specific concern for brain cancer risks as a result of cellphone-related radiation exposure, it may be helpful for researchers to concentrate radiation exposure on test subjects on the brain specifically.
Wyde believes this type of study may still not yield adequate results. “When extrapolating from animal studies to human risk assessment for the effects of RFR, there are many complicating factors that make the evaluation of exposure more complex,” he said.
These factors include the different ways people use their cellphones, such as regularly holding a phone away from the body on speaker during calls versus putting the device directly up to one’s head. There are also different amounts of exposure to account for, which, Wyde explained, vary based on the strength of a service signal.
One thing is certain: more research is need to truly know how cellphones affect us.
According to Wyde, the NTP is currently collaborating with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for more short-term exposure studies that “will focus on further clarifying what we learned in the long-term studies and investigating the possibility of DNA damage in exposed tissues.”
The NTP would also like to develop “biomarkers of damage from exposure.” Wyde described such biomarkers as “measurable physical changes that can be seen in shorter periods of time than what it takes to develop cancer.”
Though the NTP and the NIST are conducting studies and cultivating plans to yield information that may inform the next several generations, Samet said a scientific agenda to explore this area more deeply has still not been set.
Funding for these types of projects is not always readily available, he added.
Though congress members reached out to the FCC earlier this year representing the concerns of their constituents over the issue of radiation exposure from 5G, the FCC’s response was not promising. In one of the letters of response from the FCC, Chairman Pai explained that the commission places a “high priority on the safety of wireless services and devices.”
Unfortunately, the letters don’t specifically address the concerns outlines by the congress members.
There was no language surrounding solutions or potential research on the dangers of higher quantities of cell towers in close proximity which may increase the amount of radiation exposure to which humans will be subjected.
The FCC is currently not conducting studies to further investigate the issue, though have announced intentions to establish uniform rules for compliance with radiofrequency standards. Meanwhile, the governments of Belgium, Netherlands, and Switzerland are investigating these concerns.
“I wish we were moving on a track to be able to address these concerns,” said Samet.
Shouldn’t we be?
Emma Schkloven is an award-winning reporter based in Virginia. She graduated in 2014 with a degree in English. Her work has been picked up by The Associated Press and The Washington Post, and her bylines have appeared in The Baltimore Sun, The Las Vegas Sun and The News & Advance in Lynchburg, Virginia.