5G offers many advantages and opportunities, also for our health; 5G technology could help to improve our health and care through new applications in clinical, outpatient and other medical matters.
However, the question that some might ask is whether 5G technology brings new threats to our health. This is the topic of some fierce debates.
This is what we know: 5G technology will have to rely on additional bandwidths. Current communication systems mostly operate below a frequency of 6 GHz; the frequency bands used in 4G for example range from 700 MHz to 3 GHz.
But the spectrum below 6 GHz is already too saturated for 5G technology to efficiently live up to its full potential. The transmission of radio frequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) for 5G also does work a little differently than for 4G. Beamforming for example or so called Multiple-In Multiple-Out (MIMO) antennas will only become a reality with the new technology and the density of the RF-EMF signals will be different to predecessor technologies.
To make 5G technology work the way it is supposed to, additional frequency bands are needed. Researchers are particularly looking at the spectrum from 6 GHz to 300 GHz. This means that the new 5G bands would use ranges well above ultra-high frequencies (UHF), having wavelengths in the centimetre (3–30 GHz) and the millimetre ranges (30–300 GHz).
Masts situated closely together
Urban areas will only be able to offer uninterrupted fifth generation wireless communication coverage by installing 5G antenna masts situated closely together and operating alongside existing 2-4G masts for many more years. The number of high-frequency-powered base stations and other devices will increase.
The question that researchers want to answer (amongst other things) is whether such high frequencies (6–100 GHz, millimetre waves, MMW), in combination with 2-4G radio frequency (RF) waves, could have a negative impact on human health and the environment.
Current scientific evidence has not conclusively demonstrated that wireless and mobile communications cause harmful health effects in humans when operated within established limits; however, risks cannot be excluded and organisations like the WHO or IARC explicitly do not rule out but actively call for attention to investigate possible negative consequences for human health (e.g. cancer).
On the other hand, the independent non-profit organisation ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection) so far did not see any need to stop the rollout of 5G as long as radio frequency-electromagnetic radiation remains within the limits.
In addition to those used to date, the 5G pioneer bands identified at EU level are 700 MHz (694-790 MHz), 3,6 GHz (3,4-3,8 GHz) and 26 GHz (24,25-27,5 GHz) frequencies. The first two are similar in terms of hazard identifications to those used for 2G-4G technologies and have been investigated in both epidemiological and experimental studies for different end points (including carcinogenicity and reproductive/developmental effects) for as long as mobile communication is publicly available, while 26 GHz and higher frequencies have not been studied to this extent.
A 2019 scientific review (Simko and Mattson), published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and financed by the German telecommunication company Telekom, summarised the existing scientific literature with regard to the investigated frequency and whether or not studies showed a response.
‘More research is needed’
Taken together, the review from Simko and Mattson overall does not find a cohesive picture but rather mixed results and subsequently calls for more research to be conducted. This conclusion is in line with other reviews (Russell, Di Caula) who have found possible influences of RF-EMF and therefore also advocate for more research being needed to establish a robust picture.
Scientists interpret the need for more research in diverging ways: a group of 250 researchers and doctors petitioned in 2017 to put a halt to the further rollout of 5G until it was proven completely safe, which is a call to invoke the precautionary principle, whereas others say that a "complete ban would be too much and stop technological innovation” advocating to “keep studying and observing (…) and be vigilant".
Regulation on EMF exposure in Europe
In Europe, the primary responsibility for protecting the population from the potential harmful effects of electromagnetic fields (EMF) falls to the governments of EU Member States. However, guidelines on the exposure to non-ionising EMF are primarily based on the guidelines of the above mentioned non-profit organisation ICNIRP. In March 2020, ICNIRP published an updated set of their 1998 guidelines on exposure to RF EMF between 100 kHz and 300 GHz - thereby covering the spectrum in which 5G technology operates.
For developing their guidelines, ICNIRP takes into account if adverse health effects are observed and whether these are sufficiently scientifically substantiated. The science showing effects in the form of heating and in the form of nerve stimulation is, according to them, substantiated enough and included in their assessment. They further state there is "no evidence" for EMF causing cancer, electrohypersensitivity, infertility, or any other health effects.
These guidelines have been criticised by scientists for not providing limits for long-term exposure and for not incorporating non-thermal or biological effects.
According to Rodney Croft, Chair of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), research had not shown any adverse health effects associated with exposures below the ICNIRP restrictions, "regardless of exposure duration, and regardless of whether the interaction mechanism is thermal or non-thermal".
At a STOA workshop in the European Parliament entitled 'Health and environmental impacts of 5G' on 7 December 2020, Croft also said that the mechanisms of interaction between RF EMFs and the body are known, including how this is affected by EMF frequency. "Such knowledge has been incorporated into the new ICNIRP 2020 guidelines, providing protection for the higher frequencies relevant to 5G technologies."
At the same workshop experts of the health directorate of the European Commission (DG SANTE) said that "the Commission is reassessing the situation in the light of currently available scientific evidence, which may lead to a review of the exposure limits".
Aware of the concerns about increased exposure of the public to electromagnetic fields that the launch of 5G raises, the Commission had already funded a study into its effects. The 2019 report reviewed the relevant scientific literature and concludes: "Other than heating effects (which are not significant at the power levels to be expected for 5G), no harmful mm-wave health effects have been demonstrated in humans to date. (…) Our modelling results suggest that any increase in exposure of the population to EMF caused by the shift to 5G and small cells is likely to cause only a very modest increase in exposure of the population to EMF".
In October 2020, a report by the US-American FDA came to the same conclusion: "To date, there is no consistent or credible scientific evidence of health problems caused by the exposure to radio frequency energy emitted by cell phones".
The WHO on the other hand announced a new risk assessment of radio frequency electromagnetic fields for 2022 – also being aware of and involved in the current discussion about the safety of 5G for human health.