5G: Upgrade or Uncertainty?
Today we're going to have a look at the latest radio bogeyman: 5G cell phone data service. 5G is science's latest answer to the constantly-growing demand for more and faster data, covering more of the planet, connecting more people to the web, and offering faster broadband service. And yet, if you do a Google search, you'll find every imaginable way that someone claims it's physically harmful: everything from it gives you cancer, to autism, to Alzheimer's, to anything else you can think of. Many claim that 5G is untested, that it uses the same frequency as exotic weapon systems, even that it instantly destroys plant leaves. In this episode, we'll find out whether there's any truth to any of this, and even look at one novel reason that 5G fears have spread so effectively.
So what is 5G anyway? Its the 5th generation of cell phone data technology, and it differs in that it provides game-changing broadband capabilities. Its underlying technology is simple radio, like all previous generations. 5G uses a broader range of frequencies than others, and extends higher into the frequency spectrum. But none of these frequencies are new; they've all been used by other common radio services for decades. Strictly speaking, 5G introduces nothing new into the radio spectrum. Yet, like every new thing that comes along, some people oppose it and claim that it's dangerous.
There's really only one study that's widely cited by anti-cell phone advocates as proving that cell phone radios are harmful to humans: a 2016 study performed by the National Toxicology Program, and widely cited across the Internet. However, what the advocates claim is actually not what the study found at all. In the study, rats and mice were blasted with extremely powerful radio signals in frequencies including those used by cell phones, intermittently for their entire lives. The only significant results of the study were just barely statistically significant — low enough that they probably just represented random noise in the data — and they were that the exposed rats lived longer than the non-exposed control rats. Yet the study was reported as proving cell phones cause cancer. Why? Because the other result was a barely significant increase in the rate of one type of tumor called a schwannoma, but only in a few of the male rats, and in no females and no mice. Even the authors themselves pointed out a number of other potentially confounding factors that could have accounted for the results. Yet the study remains the anti-cell phone advocates' go-to piece of evidence that cell phones cause cancer in humans — a claim that's in direct opposition to all the mountains of observational evidence that we have from a third of a century of widespread cell phone use. If this study was to be used at all, it's more appropriately used as evidence that cell phones make you live longer. But we don't use it that way, because it was one single outlier study with insignificant results most likely caused by confounding factors.
Claims of harm from cell phone use — not just 5G, but all cell phones — should also be red flagged because they are tirelessly promoted by the Environmental Working Group, an anti-technology lobbying group so anti-scientific that I had to devote an entire Skeptoid episode (#623) to debunking their many claims: anti-biotech, anti-sunscreen, anti-vaccine, and of course anti-cell phone.
But luckily, there's one simple piece of knowledge that anyone can learn that will provide all you need to know to effectively process every claim you'll ever hear about the dangers of radio. This is simply to have a working knowledge of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Start with the fact that visible light and radio waves are the same thing, just at different frequencies. Light is electromagnetic radiation (EMR) that we usually think of as traveling in photons, while radio is EMR that we usually think of as traveling in waves. In reality, both travel as both waves and particles. This is what we call particle-wave duality. All EMR behaves like a particle in some circumstances, and like a wave in others. There's no need to go into this in detail here — but do research particle-wave duality on your own if you want to learn more — the takeaway relevant to today's discussion is that all EMR is the exact same thing, distributed along the electromagnetic spectrum.
At the bottom end of the spectrum is ELF, extremely low frequency, used for radio communication with submarines because its extremely long wavelengths are the only ones that will penetrate water. Higher is ultra low frequency which can penetrate the ground, so we use it for radio communication in mines. Higher than that we get to bands like VHF and UHF, that telecommunications companies are always fighting over, and that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) allocates to various radio technologies. Everything from cell phone radios to television transmissions to satellite communications to police radio and every other kind of radio you've ever heard of — 5G included — share this great big chunk of the spectrum. The highest of these are the microwave band. Generally, transmitting on higher frequencies allows more data but the signal does not propagate as well.
Above microwave frequencies comes the band that our eyes are sensitive to: visible light. The visible light band is the crucial one for today, because its top end is the dividing line between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, otherwise known as harmful and non-harmful radiation.
Every frequency of EMR can be expressed as either a wavelength, a frequency, and an energy level. As frequency increases, wavelength gets shorter and energy level increases. They are three ways to measure the same frequency of EMR. Above the ultraviolet, all frequencies are at a high enough energy level that they can strip electrons from atoms, which ionizes them. Different elements ionize at slightly different energy levels, but we usually define 10eV (electron volts) as the energy at which EMR is dangerous. This frequency is about 2.4 PHz (petahertz), many orders of magnitude higher than any radio signal. Generally, ionizing radiation is dangerous to living tissue, and non-ionizing radiation is safe.
However, as we approach the ionizing energy level, other effects can be observed in the body. For example, you can be sunburned from the most extreme non-ionizing radiation from effects like photoreactions in collagen and some other complicated molecular reactions. These effects can be begin around 3.1eV, still well above visible light, but still just below ionizing radiation. So really, a more accurate place to draw the line between what's safe and what's potentially harmful is the visible spectrum. And all radio signals, 5G included, are far below the visible spectrum — where there has never been any observation of harm, nor any plausible theory suggesting a possible mechanism for harm. If you're not harmed by ambient light, then you're sure as heck not going to be hurt by something so much less energetic as 5g.
This is why we've always said that radio is safe, whether it's WiFi, 5G, or a set of toy talkie talkies. Nevertheless, claims persist that radio signals of one sort or another are harmful, despite the lack of either evidence or plausibility. One point that's often made in support of such claims is that it has been proven that some people can hear radio signals, which is true. But how could that be if human anatomy does not interact with radio?
What this claim references is the experimental proof — which is not disputed — that some people who have excellent high frequency hearing can actually "hear" powerful radio signals. They can't actually hear what's being transmitted, that would be impossible; but when an extremely powerful radio transmitter (or other EMR source) is placed right next to their skull, some people can hear faint high-frequency clicks, pops, or hisses. The phenomenon has been studied in depth, with the most noteworthy publications coming from Drs. Elder and Chou with the Motorola Florida Research Laboratories more than a decade ago. What they discovered is that these people hear their own tissues rapidly expanding and contracting as the energy from the ultra high frequency radio heats them. All EMR — of any frequency — is energy, and when it's absorbed by anything, that energy is converted to heat. If you've ever had an MRI done, you've heard the tremendous banging sound from the machine, which is its structure reacting to these same kinds of heat energy absorption. The temperature changes we can produce in human tissue with extremely powerful transmitters are tiny, about five millionths of a degree, and the expansion correspondingly minute. All cell phones transmit at power levels many orders of magnitude below what's required for detectable heat absorption.
Nevertheless the claims of deadliness persist. And, in fairness, it's not completely unreasonable for an average person to think this. If EMR can heat a body, might not that heat do some damage? The heat from your phone's battery when you use it a lot is actually high enough that you can feel it — unlike the undetectable tissue warming from EMR energy transfer — and yet nobody complains about that. Even the temperature change you experience from walking indoors or outdoors is millions or billions of times greater than any influence from ambient radio stations, and yet nobody complains about that either.
Bottom line: Heat is the only influence radio can have on a body, and it's undetectable compared to the countless other thermal influences we experience all day every day. Even a single hot shower exceeds all the heat you'll absorb from cell phone radio over your entire lifetime.
But as we know from a decade of Skeptoid, some people are always going to cling to any misinformation they can find that paints any technology developed by humans as dangerous. Just last week we talked about the same kind of misinformation surrounding the herbicide glyphosate and how behavioral economics models one way that such misinformation spreads. Here's another way. In 2019 disinformation about 5G began to be actively promoted online by RT America, the Russian propaganda outlet that's become so expert at spreading divisive disinformation on social media, and owned by the Russian government. Just one of their YouTube videos titled 5G: A Dangerous Experiment on Humanity has millions of views. RT America also carpet bombs the American viewership with videos promoting GMOs as poisonous, claiming pesticides cause autism, and every other culturally divisive pseudoscience you can think of. A report from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence found that RT America has the highest YouTube viewership of all news outlets.
If it seems tinfoil hattish to pin some of the blame for this disinformation on Russia, consider that they do have a very real interest in this. All nations have a strategic interest in dominating the 5G market. The United States — with its superior nationwide infrastructure — has a huge head start. Russia in particular is struggling badly with its efforts to deploy 5G. The more Russia can slow down expansion in the U.S., the better. Russia — like any other nation competing against others for 5G dominance — is helped by spreading consumer fears among their competitors. Consumer fears can be most effectively weaponized in a litigious nation like the United States, where juries are quick to award damages and lawmakers eagerly pass restrictions that appease frightened voters. Logically, it makes far more strategic sense for RT America's videos to contain disinformation than to contain truthful reporting.
In summary, relax and enjoy your wireless data. But if the potential of harm from radio truly does concern you, then by all means: never, ever take a shower.
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