Is 5G dangerous? This is what science says
There is concern that 5G means new and increased radiation risks. In this article, we give a simple picture of what 5G means purely technical, and what differentiates it from today's mobile technology. We also try to provide a simple introduction to radiation and explain what is known about the risks of radiation from radio signals.
FM radio uses frequencies between 87.5 and 108 MHz. The old NMT we had in the 1980s ran 450 MHz, ie between VHF and UHF. While the successor GSM, ie 2g, came up in 1800/1900 MHz (ie a little rounded just under 2 GHz) which can be said to be between radio and microwaves.
Wifi networks often stay around 2.4 GHz. The 3G and 4G networks we have here in Sweden operate at 2.1-2.7 GHz, while the first 5g networks, as in Umeå, operate around 3.5 GHz. There are 5g networks in other countries that use up to 4-5 GHz. In the longer term, 5g frequencies are around 25-27 GHz.
next generation of mobile networks
5G is the next generation of mobile networks where the speed of surfing, coverage and everything else we use today's mobile networks to (lte, which is usually called 4G) should be significantly improved.
The speed of 5G is believed to reach up to 10-20 gigabit / second, the network is believed to be ready when it is ready (but realistically you will learn to get in any gigabit), but above all, significantly more gadgets should be able to be connected at the same time. So far, only frequencies below 6 GHz have been reserved for mobile networks, but in order to be able to maximize the speeds substantially, 5G will claim frequency bands between 6 GHz and 100 GHz.
One of the biggest benefits will be that the latency is significantly reduced. The delay is what makes things you do on your mobile experience slow, even if you surf the fastest network with the best coverage.
What is 5G?
First, a little quick technology history. The NMT network, the first commercial mobile network, is now retrospectively considered as 1G, the first generation. The successor GSM, or 2G, meant first and foremost that mobile phone traffic was digitized. 3G gave us useful data rates, at least for download, and if we didn’t move too fast. With 4G, we got tremendously much faster speeds for both upload and download plus we got better performance when we moved.
With 5G we get further increased speeds, but above all lower latency, less delays. Low latency is essential for what we call real-time communication, for example, we want to control things remotely. Also, capacity increases sharply by 5G, more can be connected at the same time within the same area.
5G is basically a collective name for a number of different technology solutions. If we focus on radio technology, the 5G solutions that are about to be rolled out are now working in the near future on the frequency band around 3.5 GHz. Thus, it is purely radio-wave and radiation-like, quite similar to the radio technology that we have been using for many years, including for 4G. One can express what distinguishes 5G more about different communication protocols than different radio solutions.
In the longer term, there are plans for higher frequencies around 25-26 GHz for 5G, but it will take some years. There are several reasons for this delay, including some of the frequencies currently used for radio links and the like. It will take a few years before these frequencies become available.
But we can see that in terms of radio frequencies, 5G does not really mean anything new. You will also work with more targeted radio signals to increase efficiency, but this is also not a new technology.
What is Radiation?
To be simplified, radiation can be described as the transfer of energy without the source and the target of the energy having to be in contact with each other. An example is when you sit on a spring day and enjoy the warmth of the sun. It is energy transferred from the sun to you, without having to be in contact with the sun. The heat from a fire is another example.
These two examples point to a couple of important features of radiation:
The longer you are away from the fire, the less warm you will be from it. If the distance becomes large enough, no meaningful energy is transmitted. The sun, which is nearly 150 million kilometres away, compensates for the great distance through extremely high power. In short: Effect and distance are very important factors for how much radiation affects us.
Of course, exposure time also plays a role, something many have learned by falling asleep while sunbathing.
Radio waves are just one of many types of radiation we are exposed to daily. Visible light and most obvious sunlight is another example. We have a more or less constant radioactive background radiation from both the ground and objects around us – a source of dangerous radiation that few people know is ordinary tobacco smoke.
We are also exposed to cosmic radiation, especially when we fly. We are exposed to X-rays at hospitals, at the dentist and in safety checks. Electric fields mean radiation.
What are the risks of radiation?
A lot of research has been done on radiation risks for people from radio waves. The risks are mainly that radio waves can heat tissue – microwaves are a clear example of that. Other examples are high power radio transmitters or radar antennas.
If you are exposed to sufficiently powerful radio waves for a long time, you can get burns. But it also means that you feel quite silly if you are damaged by radio waves, much like you feel when you are too close to a fire or some other heat source. It’s burning.
Radio waves can also be a contributing factor to some cancers. But here is a lot of evidence that you have to be exposed to high radiation doses to be clearly dangerous.
As we mentioned earlier, radiation dose is a combination of power, distance and time.
The reason why mobiles would be dangerous is that we use them so close to us. We often hold them close to our heads. But in return, most of the time they work with small-scale effects, usually less than a thousand watts. Plus, on an annual basis, we still don’t have them next to our ear for so many hours.
In fact, the manufacturers of mobile phones have strong driving forces to minimize the radiation from them. Partly, of course, for health reasons. But also because they always want to keep power consumption down and thus get better battery life. So here’s a case where the hunt for technical performance gives you at least a partially unintended health benefit.
On the other hand, base stations for mobile traffic on roofs and in masts can have effects of up to 40-50 watts, but you will never get them really close. In practice, they affect us even less than the mobiles themselves.
How dangerous is 5G?
Of course, there are risks around 5G, but the fact is that radiation appears to be one of the smallest problems. The major risks are rather things like security problems, privacy issues and stress.
5G will enable them to give much more gadgets than computers today to their own connection. Everything from toasters to industrial machines. This gives a lot more possible targets for attacks – hacking. Especially when consumer products get connected.
It would be convenient if the fridge could give you an updated shopping list on your mobile when you shop, or you can check out, so you didn’t forget the iron on. And for manufacturers, it is incredibly tempting to be able to gather accurate and reliable statistics on how and when their appliances are used. But how good are manufacturers of kitchen appliances and home electronics in data security? And do we really want everything from electric toothbrushes to children’s toys to be able to collect data on how, where and when they are used?
Then they cannot ignore that more connected objects can simply give us more potential technology problems and thus, more technology stress at home or at work. Anyone who has been looking for drivers for a printer at work or tried to get their cell phone all playing an odd video format on the TV recognizes how stressful technology flaws can be.
Mobiles and other connected devices can stress us out even when they work exactly as they should. The fact that you can now market everything from spa weekends to mountain stations with no need to be connected suggests that many sometimes long away from the constantly connected existence. As if social media wasn’t enough, with 5G, all of our home appliances and many other items around us, both at work or in the store, can attract contact and attention.
Sure, we should keep our eyes on radiation, but we must not forget that there are other much more acute risks with 5G.
We contacted Jimmy Estenberg at the Radiation Safety Authority.
How long has the Radiation Safety Authority been watching 5G?
– There have been discussions about it for a long time, but more we started working on the issue in early spring 2018. Initially, it was not clear what 5G will actually mean. It is a collective term for different things. Everything is not new, for example, directed lobes, that radio waves are directed to be used more efficiently, have been used previously in other applications.
Do you see any significant difference or increase in radiation risk with 5G technology compared to existing mobile technologies like 4G and wifi?
– Not based on the information available today. The frequencies that will be used initially are similar to those already used for wireless communications, such as mobile telephony and wireless computer networks. For those frequencies, there is extensive research into how powerful radio waves are needed to harm people.
Have you been able to make any measurements?
– No, we have not been able to measure yet because 5G is not operational in Sweden. So far, we have been able to base our exposure assessments on calculations and on measurements made in other countries, such as Australia and South Korea. From a legal point of view, 5G is not subject to a permit or even is required to report under the Radiation Protection Act or the Environmental Code. This means, for example, that there is no requirement for environmental impact assessment for this type of business.
– But as soon as the business is in operation, mobile operators are obliged to check and maintain the radiation protection and take the necessary measures and precautions to prevent or counteract damage to human health or the environment ?.
Is there any area within 5G you would like to know more about?
– We would like to see more research examining health risks with the higher frequency bands that are being talked about for future use, around 26 GHz, where we have limited the data today.