Communication has become fundamental to the globalised society in which we live, so it comes as little surprise that these days there are more devices than people on Earth. The ability to access the internet anywhere – from the streets of Berlin to those of Brussels or Barcelona – and at increasingly high speeds is based on electromagnetic waves carrying our data.
These radio-frequency (RF) electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) that are exchanged between cell towers, mobile phones, and many other wireless devices are absorbed by biological tissues. This not only holds true for humans but equally so for frogs or oak trees, making every living organism susceptible to absorbing RF-EMF energy. This energy causes these tissues to heat up (as anyone who has used a microwave will know), known as 'dielectric heating'.
But the level of RF-EMF radiation emitted by cell towers and devices is far lower than the ones emitted by a microwave, according to the WHO, and the ICNIRP 2020 exposure limits are designed to protect against all adverse health effects on humans. However, these guidelines do not take into account biological effects on animals, plants, and fungi.
Electromagnetic absorption critically depends on the wave’s frequency, the power density (i.e. intensity), and the distance from the radiating source, along with the particular size, shape, mineral and water content of the organism. These varying factors make studying the actual impact of RF-EMF radiation on the environment difficult, and research standards are not always consistent across different studies or even disclosed. Thus, cross comparisons in meta-studies are at present inconclusive, contributing to why the potential impact of 5G on non-human life is as unclear as it is for human life.
More research needed
Furthermore, there are still very few studies examining the environmental impact of the higher frequencies that 5G will use, and reviews of the studies that do exist unanimously state that more research should be conducted.
This is also the conclusion of a study published by the European Parliament's Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) in June 2021. It systematically reviews the available literature in relation to the impact of 5G on the environment (i.e. non-human life forms).
The study is divided into two parts based on the main focus of the articles reviewed: the target groups (non-human vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants and fungi), combined with the frequency band, which is further subdivided into the low (0.45-6 GHz) and high (6 to 300 GHz) range. Together these result in six categories.
The study experts confirm that the number of studies at present is extremely limited in most categories, and more research is needed. Dielectric heating of biological tissue in response to EMF exposure was found in all categories (as is a commonly known effect). Non-thermal effects were sometimes found but were not always investigated.
In the lower frequency range, not much effect could be found for vertebrates, and some effect could be found for invertebrates and plants though these are plagued by contradictions and experimental problems. In the higher frequency range, effects could clearly be demonstrated for vertebrates and at high power densities for invertebrates, but no conclusions could be made for plants and fungi, or for invertebrates at low power densities.
The study proposes exploratory EU policy options based on the limited nature of these conclusions, including funding research in EMF exposure, systematic monitoring of environmental EMFs, making information on the EMF operational aspects public, and requiring compliance studies for non-human organisms when base station antennas are installed.
Russell, 2018, 5G wireless telecommunications expansion: Public health and environmental implications
Sivani and Sudarsanam, 2013, Impacts of radio-frequency electromagnetic field (RF-EMF) from cell phone towers and wireless devices on biosystem and ecosystem—a review
Gee, 2009, Late Lessons from Early Warnings: Towards realism and precaution with EMF?