I accept and recognize your skepticism, and it’s entirely healthy so long as you don’t go on–as you are not!–to assert that it’s inherently dangerous. Skepticism is very powerful when it is paired with an open-eyed realism about accepting empirical data as it expands.
I don’t think we have a particular need for 5G, honestly! I think that’s a market-driven interest–a hammer in search of nails, so the industry is making a lot of nails, too. The Internet of Things (IoT) has already shown that most non-computer/non-smartphone devices attached to the Internet have insecure operating systems and are easily suborned. That’s true of a lot of (but not most?) computers and smartphones, too. The 5G promise is that everything will be connected, a billion billion devices. Great! All sending us spam.
But on the issue of 5G safety: it’s still non-ionizing radiation; it is, absolutely, still microwave radiation, even if the wavelengths are shorter; signal strength will be strictly below several factors below expected potential harm; and biological testing and models reveal nothing unique.
I don’t think based on all that, there’s any chance given what we know already from the last 20 years of research that a magic new biologic effect will emerge just because the wavelengths are smaller. As you recollect from the article, microwaves lack the energy that ionizing radiation has, so the entire effect is heating or “thermal.” Thus, any higher-frequency 5G signal effects would have to demonstrate they use a pathway to produce unusual heating that no models can show they do.
I don’t think that’s the argument. Note also microwaves do not “pass right through” tissue (that’s why microwave ovens work).
LTE uses very roughly 600 MHz to 2.mumble GHz (~ 10-50 cm). 5G uses those similar bands plus “mm-waves”, i.e. IIRC 25-70 GHz (4-12 mm).
My microwave oven at home uses 2.45 GHz which is why it has to be shielded if it’s not to interfere with my wifi (which it by the way still does when it’s running). The reason it works as an oven is because there is are rotational/vibrational modes in water at those frequencies. The human body is to large extent water so microwaves are very well absorbed by our bodies. We are familiar with that effect when we get a warm ear after using a cell phone for prolonged periods of time without a headset. However, a warm ear doesn’t mean danger and there has been a lot of research that showed that despite local heating, use is safe. An obvious crucial difference is that while my microwave puts 900 W into my popcorn, my iPhone emits on the order of ~2 W when setting up a call IIRC.
The 5G absorption issue has I believe to do with the fact that mm-waves are much more easily absorbed by everyday structures around us and hence range is reduced compared to LTE. That is why we hear that 5G will require many more antennas to be set up and/or signal strengths could be increased. But ultimately, both LTE and 5G employ wavelengths (“microwaves” which covers everything from 1 mm to 1 m) that will lead to heating of human tissue. And neither is ionizing. While it is reasonable to assume that a mm-wave will not have the exact same effect on human tissue as a 0.5-m wave, it is just as correct to point out that both will interact with tissue using the same fundamental mechanism (i.e. heating vs. for example generation of free radicals). I believe this is what Glenn points out.
The signal from a phone is not directed like that of a magnetron in a microwave oven, and cell phones rarely use wattage that high, only when extremely far from a transmitter, and only for extremely brief periods.
There is no evidence that a warm ear from a cell phone has anything to do with wireless signals, holy cow. Find me a peer-reviewed study, because I’ve been reading research for decades, and I’ve only seen this claim on tin-foil hat sites.
It requires many more transmitters because the signal strength will be as low as other forms of wireless communication, meaning that its propagation will be relatively short. I would love to know where you’re reading this stuff, so I can debunk it better!
I can’t help but remember how internet memes were flying around about Airport and Airport Express radiation when they were first released, like this discussion here:
And more recently, AirPod radiation causing cancer:
My thanks again to Glenn for debunking memes and clearly articulating facts in an excellent article.
Super High Frequency is a long way from ionizing radiation, but it still carries energy. It would be helpful to know how much a 5 GHz wireless transceiver heats a quantity of water sitting right next to it. Now, if the water in your brain were heated the same amount, does this result in any biological damage? I kind of doubt that it would, as you need frequencies about a million times higher, in the petahertz range, before the radiation is ionizing.
And don’t think that using earbuds is going to help here. If you’re using wireless earbuds, the signal strength doesn’t degrade that much, and your sending that right into your head. If you’re using wireless earbuds, you’ve moved the transceivers that much closer to your brain.
It’s negligible and covered by FCC regulations and studies. Consider how long it takes a 1,000-watt microwave oven with an enclosed surface reflective to bounce the EMF repeatedly instead of letting it dissipate over distance. A 5G network transmitter (or a 5 GHz Wi-Fi network base station) produces vastly less energy and disperses it over a broad directional swath or omnidirectionally (not entirely, but mostly like a sphere of signal emitting outwards).
Wireless earbuds use Bluetooth, which transmits at extremely low signal strengths, orders of magnitude lower than Wi-Fi, often, which is how they have long battery life with tiny batteries, and use frequency hopping (FH), which dwells on a particular frequency swath very briefly, instead of continuously outputting across a common range.
Except microwaves operate at 2.4 GHz, so a 5 GHz signal is carrying more than twice the energy. I’m only concerned about the possibility of heating causing damage to living tissue.
That is not how that works. I would highly suggest to learn more about this, you consult the FCC and CDC sites for background reading.
And as noted above 5 GHz ≠ 5G networks.
Actually, a household microwave operates at up to 2.45 GHz, but I used 2.4 GHz for simplicity. And while I appreciate your advice, my first amateur radio license issued more than thirty-five years ago by the FCC required a pretty good understanding of frequencies and radio waves.
This is a decent explanation that energy is directly proportional to frequency: https://astro.unl.edu/naap/hydrogen/light.html
Moreover, I never conflated 5 GHz with 5G; a wireless administrator would not make such a mistake.
The FCC regulates output signal strength, so the issue isn’t potential power with the same inputs, but how the output is controlled. However, as it stands, the FCC (and with varying rules, other regulators around the world) allow far higher maximum EIRP from 5 GHz networks than comparable 2.4 GHz, partly because the signal propagates less far.
Regardless, the highest output levels permitted for consumer microwave equipment–stuff that’s not mounted away from people, locked up, and covered with warning signs–is designed as I note in the article to be factors below to orders of magnitude below the lowest level at which research shows any thermal effect that could affect health.
The article focuses on 5G networks, and 5 GHz is not substantially higher than 2.4 GHz compared to far higher non-ionizing frequencies that 5G encompasses, so I am sorry to be confused by your focus on a widely deployed technology.
That explanation pertains to the photon model of light, which is useful for understanding the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. It’s not really useful for understanding how a wifi or 5G signal interacts with the human body.
We are SOOOO overdue for seeing a summary like this one. Thank you, Glenn!
But first, how can you talk about p-hacking, without citing a world-recognized analysis of it, at https://www.xkcd.com/882/ ?
Second, a feature that is absent from all the reports I’ve seen, is that there are so many published studies that look at impact from a chemical or EMF or whatever, that do not find a strong association. We often see the suggestion that because the study examined “only” 300 rats (or 5000 people, or whatever), there may be an effect that could be found with MORE subjects. The flip side of this coin is the statistical power of the study: if the effect were strong enough to show a correlation in 300 rats, then it would be at a level of X cases per 100,000 humans; the absence of a correlation suggests that fewer than X cases are expected. Of course, “fewer than X” can mean “zero,” but there is NO NUMBER OF SUBJECTS large enough to absolutely guarantee X is actually zero, that there is NO RISK WHATSOEVER from the tested agent.
My impression is that a meta-analysis of EMF or other studies could set this upper limit of risk, and that we would see X is so small that surely we should spend our collective energies on other things with larger X’s, e.g., the #GlobalCO2Crisis.
PS: I’m exactly NOT anti-research, and I’m generally happy with the focus of research dollars. What makes it into the press is a completely different story. Keep up the research about as before—it probably represents smart priorities—but let’s have some better reporting on what we’re working on, why we’re working on it, and what lines of research aren’t likely enough to be valuable to spend our energy on them
What about research showing EMF impact on voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCCs)?
“This article reviews, then, a substantially supported set of targets, VGCCs, whose stimulation produces non-thermal EMF responses by humans/higher animals with downstream effects…”
It’s noteworthy that the paper mentions there are both therapeutic and pathological effects.
What if there is a biological impact but it falls short of a “provably-causes-cancer” threshold? What if it just makes one weaker or less resilient? (Yes, that’s more in favor for EMF hygiene - use a headset, don’t put your wifi under your pillow while you sleep, etc.)
This isn’t a study, but a literature examination by someone who has consistently and repeatedly, without substantive evidence, pushed a message of EMFs causing harm. He lectures around the world about it.
There’s nothing wrong with being a contrarian with evidence, or being a gadfly. And it’s always possible that someone would find a pattern of evidence other people miss, and which is valid. A friend’s wife received a MacArthur Fellowship for her work, where she spent well over a decade ignoring conventional wisdom in her biological research and her work changed her entire field.
However, there are a handful of scientists around the world who have spent from several years to more than two decades acting as anti-EMF enthusiasts without engaging scientific rigor. To avoid the potential of libel suits—which can be filed even when one is telling the truth and would win such a suit—I won’t list the several people who are well known for this here.
I will note that in my article, I point out two of the most prominent people who have pushed a particular, inaccurate view of EMF absorption were quoted in the New York Times, and one essentially recanted his position to the reporter and the other was unable to defend it. So.
Thanks for your reply. You’ve obviously researched and thought about this much more than I have; I wasn’t trying to suggest you’re wrong or 5G is more dangerous than other EMF types, I’m genuinely curious about these areas that don’t seem to get much discussion. I didn’t mean to cite an article from a questionable author, his history obviously weakens the case.
In general, it seems like most of the EMF discussion and research is on the thermal effects - rightly so, when the thermal load is high the impact can be significant. But there are also non-thermal biological effects of EMF exposure. Are those effects significant? I honestly don’t know. (Here’s one example - it might affect quality of sleep in rats https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4195462/ - obviously not relevant to the discussion about 5G - they used different frequencies, but a good example that there are non-thermal biological effects.)
Regardless, those are more concerns about the biological impact of EMF in general, not about 5G specifically, so I’m bringing my questions to the wrong article.
I get and support the point of your article - there is unfounded hysteria about 5G with no supporting evidence. While skepticism might be reasonable, hysteria is not necessary. You do a good job of addressing that. Thanks for the good work you do.
Sorry to push back so hard, but that fellow in particular is one of the people who makes it difficult to sort out potential risk from a miasma of thinly applicable aspersions.
The thermal issue keeps coming up, because with non-ionizing radiation, there’s no known theoretical mechanism–much less one that can be quantified–that would produce other effects, particularly at the extremely low energy levels that 5G high-frequency transmitter will use.
The goal of most cellular networks is to use just enough power to be distinguishable from background noise, which is mostly the rest of natural emissions. So I believe that folks hearing about 5G requiring millions of new base stations and (in the future) using new frequencies as something huge and scary, while we already have Wi-Fi deployed with a billion base stations at higher power than 5G will use with no measurable ill health effects.
I do see the concern about millimeter wave radiation’s potential to penetrate living things in different ways, but the baseline amount of energy that would transmit and its nature remains at the heart. If the frequencies aren’t such that they can knock around stuff at an atomic scale, but rather just at worst agitate molecules a bit, then thermal is all there is to consider.
Glenn, did you include the survey paper “Thermal and non-thermal health effects of low intensity non-ionizing radiation: An international perspective” (2018; doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2018.07.019 ) in your research? Notes in the summary of that paper seem to contradict what you are saying here:
There is strong evidence that excessive exposure to mobile phone-frequencies over long periods of time increases the risk of brain cancer both in humans and animals. The mechanism(s) responsible include induction of reactive oxygen species, gene expression alteration and DNA damage through both epigenetic and genetic processes. In vivo and in vitro studies demonstrate adverse effects on male and female reproduction, almost certainly due to generation of reactive oxygen species.
Earlier in the discussion, you said, “The thermal issue keeps coming up, because with non-ionizing radiation, there’s no known theoretical mechanism–much less one that can be quantified–that would produce other effects.” The quantification of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in biological tissue is largely problematic because the charged particles are by their nature highly reactive. Historically, ROS concentrations have been measured indirectly by the consumption/depletion of antioxidant molecules in tissues. Quantification of ROS and its effects is a human shortcoming, but the health impacts of ROS should not be ignored.
Broad issues about ROS have only been studied and found in only the last few years. For instance, we know that burning β-Hydroxybutyrate (the smallest ketone body) in our mitochondria generates far less ROS than burning glucose. This small change is a principal factor in the positive neurological performance on a ketogenic diet (as noted in papers like this (2007) and this (2012). We’ve known for over 75 years that LCHF diets are highly effective at treating diseases like childhood epilepsy, but the mechanisms have been elusive until now.
I’m hardly an expert in this field; I’ve been studying bits of the literature for about 5 years. The positive results (neuro and otherwise) that I’ve seen on a LCHF diet made me highly curious about the science; it’s given me some literacy in the questions about non-ionizing radiation. I’ve just started to read the 2018 survey paper I started with; reading and chasing links will take some time. I welcome your commentary on that survey article.
Is the energy threshold of ionizing radiation a sufficient threshold for our safety? I do not know. It’s certainly one of the more interesting science questions out there today.
I have doubts that 5G will do much for mobile. Latency doesn’t seem to be a big issue and the poor penetration through walls and short distances it can travel from base stations makes it impractical. It could improve GPS, but not enough for us civilians to care. However, what if you’re not mobile?
Home use seems to be where 5G will really shine. If your house can receive the high frequency 5G signal, it’s going to keep receiving it, and high frequency 5G speeds are compatible to home internet. For almost a decade, the two major telephone providers, Google, and other companies have tried to compete with cable providers. FIOS and U-Verse have been a bust. Even Google didn’t have deep enough pockets to implement their own fiber network.
It’s just too damn expensive. You have to put fiber on every street and every block. It costs hundreds of millions to wire up even a small neighborhood and even then, you’re not guaranteed to have any customers.
However, high frequency 5G doesn’t depend upon tearing up streets and cellphone providers have customers. 5G towers are also smaller and could even be placed unobtrusively on a rooftop. Unlike fiber, 5G is cheap to implement and companies already have the customers. Imagine a company implementing 5G home internet service neighborhood by neighborhood. In the end, maybe only 30% of the US would have 5G coverage, but that would include 95% of the US population.
I see 5G as a way to break the cable monopoly’s stranglehold on home internet. By the way, I just got notified that my home internet 100mbs service (which gives me around 40mbs service) is going up from $73 per month to $90 per month. Oh, they’re also charging me a $2.50 future internet service fee.