5G — Environmental Health Threat, Economic Boon or Both?
The rollout of 5th generation wireless technology, aka 5G, has begun amidst more debate over safety, wrote Christopher Ketcham in The New Republic in 2020.
Those promoting 5G argue for its economic benefits and say there’s no reason to assume it’s unsafe. Opponents counter we shouldn’t presume 5G’s safety and we could have reasons for concern.
5G employs previously lesser-used frequencies called millimeter, or mm waves, which don’t travel far or easily penetrate walls or trees. The new technology’s transmitters are generally closely spaced, every few hundred feet at the curb outside homes and businesses.
5G will be added to and integrated with 3G and 4G systems instead of replacing them. The planned addition of 5G’s close-range antennas alongside existing wireless infrastructure is raising fears that RFR [radio frequency radiation] exposure will increase significantly due to more densely packed antennas.
Research indicates mm waves penetrate only top layers of skin, but affect sweat glands more than other tissues. They might have systemic effects via circulatory or nervous system connections from skin to other organs. So far, prolonged exposures to low-intensity mm waves have not been extensively studied.
Physicians and scientists from over 40 countries — concerned over sparse 5G research, coupled with studies showing RFR harm — are calling for a 5G moratorium. At the same time, many business and agency statements about 5G suggest that it’s safe enough to deploy without further study.
When U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked wireless industry and FCC representatives whether independent research had been done on 5G’s impacts on health and environment, they responded that as far as they knew no safety testing had been done.
As agencies and industry advance 5G and promote its economic benefits, some groups have pushed back. In 2018, 19 tribal governments, the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the FCC after it issued an order to eliminate federal environmental impact review requirements for 5G.
In 2020, the complainants won their case and reaffirmed that 5G facilities can’t be built without National Environmental Protection Act compliance.
This win might help the more than 130 mostly-local U.S. groups and communities that have been fighting 5G. Some locations — like Los Altos Hills, California, Easton, Connecticut and Hawaii County, Hawaii — have taken steps to limit 5G expansion. The city of Boston recently asked that the FCC review possible 5G health impacts to ensure safety of these technologies.
In 2019, New Hampshire formed a commission to review 5G safety. After expanding its scope to all wireless tech over a year of study, the commission released its report on November 1, 2020. Among 15 recommendations endorsed by 10 of 13 commission members are:
- Require appropriate state agencies to disseminate wireless health and safety information.
- Place warning signs near 5G antennas in public rights-of-way.
- Shift schools and libraries from Wi-Fi to hard-wired connections within five years of getting funding.
- Ask the FCC for an environmental impact statement on “the effect on New Hampshire and the country as a whole from the expansion of RF wireless technologies.”
Will state officials adopt these recommendations? Will other states follow New Hampshire’s lead? A report on wireless tech health effects, particularly in schools, is expected from the Oregon Health Authority early this year, and Massachusetts has been considering formation of both a 5G task force and a wireless safety commission. Outcomes of these policy actions bear watching.
For a more thorough set of science-based recommendations, see “Minimizing EMF Risk,” Chapter 12 in “Overpowered: What Science Tells Us About the Dangers of Cell Phones and Other Wi-Fi-Age Devices,” by Martin Blank, PhD.
How To Reduce Your Own Potential Wireless Risks
- Use cabled computers and corded landlines for as much work as possible.
- If you have wireless connections at home, turn them off when not in use, especially during sleep hours. One option: Put your router on a timer to switch it off at night.
- Keep wireless devices out of your bedroom while sleeping.
- Don’t use or carry operating wireless devices next to your body. Laptops shouldn’t go directly on your lap. Keep cellphones in packs or purses, not in shirt, pants or skirt pockets or bras.
- When on a cellphone, use the speaker function to keep the phone away from your head. Texting instead of calling also reduces RFR exposure.
- Put cell phones in “airplane” mode when using non-communication functions such as an alarm clock or cameras.
- When reviewing lengthy electronic documents, download first, then read offline with WiFi off.
- Consider opting out of smart utility meters and retaining analog meters, especially if meters are close to your bedroom or workspace.
A longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, Katie Alvord is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in a range of publications. She received the 2007 AAAS Science Journalism Award for Excellence in Online Reporting, for writing a series on Lake Superior Basin climate change. She has also worked with and written for libraries, government agencies and nonprofit groups, and is the author of “Divorce Your Car!”
From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 1. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.