The “information is power” adage applies to 5G information distribution and management in interesting ways. Although 5G power applications boost information sharing, the energy associated with information sharing has sparked concerns about health effects. Questions and stories are already circulating about the number of antennas needed to power the 5G network and their proximity to people. Because 5G network deployment is in its early stages, these stories reflect speculative “what if” concerns. In this situation, information can power an active approach to addressing these questions and reassuring consumers that the 5G deployment will consider and protect their health.
Although health concerns are understandably greater in the face of new and unfamiliar exposures, certain characteristics of potential hazards ascribed to 5G networks make it a straightforward scientific question. The implication, in turn, is that a base of rigorous, reliable information can be developed to evaluate those questions and concerns.
The first characteristic is the single-hazard nature of potential exposures to 5G antennas. For people near antennas, the exposure occurs through the emission of RF (radio frequency) electromagnetic waves. No complicated chemistry is involved—only physics—making evaluations more straightforward in two ways. First, the extent of RF exposure can be determined precisely because it’s based on consistent factors: the power of the source (i.e., the transmitter) and its distance from people. The factors that complicate exposure evaluations for chemicals in environmental media such as air are simply not in play here. For example, exposure to airborne chemicals is affected by wind speed and direction, temperature, and precipitation, among other factors, none of which affect RF transmission.
The second characteristic is the nature of the interaction between RF and biological tissues. Only one distinct and fixed aspect of RF—its associated energy—interacts with biological molecules and potentially induces responses. The subsequent cascade of reactions and responses can get complex, but there’s a discrete and singular starting point and stimulus to evaluate. This characteristic also contrasts sharply with responses to chemical exposures, where multiple overlapping mechanisms triggered in different ways confound our ability to identify major events and pathways. The physics of RF dictate that potential health effects will be associated with reactions to RF energy passing though tissues. Practically speaking, this fact narrows the scope of mechanisms and potential effects to be considered in addressing health concerns related to 5G antennas.
Certainly in 2018 we lack complete answers to questions about exposures to RF energy from 5G technology, thus fueling the circulating what-if hypotheses. Because questions about these potential health effects are readily resolved through scientific investigation, however, we can be optimistic that the science of health physics will yield reliable answers. The foundation of in-depth health-physics studies on the reactions and biological responses that occur from exposure to radiation energy has expanded over more than 50 years. Furthermore, over the last 20 years, health concerns raised first about energy from power-transmission lines and then about cellular-telephone technology led to the multiple studies and scientific advisory panel reviews that established a baseline for the mechanisms that warrant focused investigation and the types of studies are that are suitable for these investigations. The investigations and findings about cell-phone RF emissions have cleared the way to address questions about 5G.
All these factors point to the viability of focused scientific investigations to generate clear and reliable information about the potential health effects of 5G. The main starting point, RF energy, is readily measurable with inexpensive equipment. The characteristics of emissions and proximity of both workers and populations to devices and antennas are also verifiable.
Direct testing of hypotheses can shift the information dynamic from speculation to validated findings. Without 5G-specific measurements and assessments, theories may abound, leaving consumers with no reliable information about potential health effects. Science-based evaluations that address the 5G questions effectively undercut the power of hypothetical uncertainties. This situation calls to mind the uncertainties and theories raised in the 1980s about standing in front of microwave ovens and microwaves themselves becoming trapped in food. Familiarity as well as reliable, scientifically derived information displaced these concerns.
Active investigations into potential health effects, unencumbered as they are by the skepticism and doubt that often surround delayed and reactive investigations, enjoy a credibility that enhances the power of the information they yield. Forward-looking entities (commercial or governmental) and investigations planned and implemented specifically to study health questions seldom generate skepticism or questions about motivations and scientific integrity.
The powerful information exchange that will accompany 5G’s implementation will change the way we engage with technology and our environments. Pre-5G information-exchange networks are fueling theories about potential 5G health effects that are rooted in uncertainty regarding how that technology may affect us. Theories may seem plausible in the absence of relevant scientific studies. But reliable, scientific information, which brought us from the days of vacuum tubes to 5G, is also the means to understand the potential for adverse health effects due to exposure to 5G emissions. Leading with active investigations will yield more-credible and more-powerful information than reacting to real or perceived health effects later.
About the Authors
Jeff Margolin, RHSP, Principal and Global Director of Data Center and Telecom Services for Ramboll, has 30 years of environmental-consulting experience. For the past 20 years, he has worked with clients in the telecommunications sector, helping social-media and tech giants on siting and operational issues, particularly related to human health and the environment. Jeff brings particular expertise in human-health and ecological-risk assessment to a variety of environmental- and health-client issues. He has provided litigation support and acted in both fact and expert-witness roles on a range of matters related to exposure analysis, risk assessment and contaminant fate and transport.
Dr. Robert DeMott is a board-certified toxicologist with more than 25 years’ experience evaluating exposures to chemicals in products, in the workplace, and in the environment. He has specialized in evaluating potential adverse health effects and leads a global practice group supporting product safety and stewardship. He has served as chairman of a committee appointed by the State of Florida to recommend updates for target levels safe in the environment and has taught toxicology and risk-assessment courses to graduate students and Australia Department of Health staff.