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5G Dangers Overview
Key Facts and Figures
- 5G is the latest wireless standard, and it uses higher frequencies than 4G.
- Concerns over wireless communication and radio waves have a long history and are far from unusual. Happily, they are generally not founded.
- The radio frequencies used by 5G are, technically speaking, a type of radiation (EMF).
- But not all types of radiation are equally dangerous, and 5G’s radio frequencies are quite safe in real-world doses.
- There is limited evidence that suggests 5G may have an effect on some small animals — notably bugs — by subtly raising their bodies’ temperatures.
- 5G does not interfere with the weather, but there are fears that it could interfere with weather forecasting since weather radar systems use similar frequencies.
- 5G is not connected to COVID-19, vaccines, or the human immune system.
5G technology is powerful and exciting — but, to some, it is also concerning. The specific fears vary: Some people fear that 5G will cause cancer. Others suggest connections between 5G and COVID-19 or between 5G and the COVID-19 vaccines. Still others worry about 5G’s impact on wildlife — or the weather, which some theorize could be altered by 5G communication. Other fears have more to do with 5G’s core purpose, which is to connect devices: Is 5G secure, or is our privacy at risk?
There’s nothing unreasonable about being wary of fast-moving technology, and there have certainly been plenty of times when people were let down or harmed by new technology — or by the governments, large corporations, and powerful people backing that technology. Consumers deserve to know how new technology works, and they have a right to investigate its potential dangers. Fortunately, information about 5G is actually widely available, meaning that we can investigate each claim of 5G danger.
The Bottom Line
Is 5G dangerous? The short answer is that 5G is not risky for humans, animals, or the planet. But consumers deserve to know why that is — which is why we examine specific concerns in scientific detail on this page.
In the News: 5G and Airplanes
Because of the wavelength that 5G operates at, some meteorologists believe it will interfere with certain types of radar. A particular concern is aircraft radar, and some airlines have objected to 5G’s wavelength use.
Airlines argue that interference from 5G signals could cause dangerous issues with the radar altimeters used by planes, which could be particularly problematic when bad weather forces pilots to rely more heavily on their instruments.
Airlines take this threat very seriously. In fact, as of this writing, several airlines have actually canceled flights over the United States’ 5G rollout. Emirates and Air India are among the carriers that scuttled planned flights. But Japanese carriers that canceled flights have since reinstated them, and U.S.-based United Airlines projects only “minor disruptions” over 5G restrictions.
This is disruptive, but not necessarily dangerous. The airlines are primarily concerned with 5G’s future rollout near airports, and AT&T and Verizon have now both confirmed that they will delay 5G’s rollout in such areas while the FAA investigates the potential danger. That should ensure that experts discover any dangers related to 5G and flight before they arise.
Addressing 5G Health Concerns: Is 5G Safe or Harmful?
Fears about 5G take on a lot of forms, but one type of fear looms above all others: Is 5G harmful to your health? It’s an important question to ask about technology that will be all around us in the outside world — and, in the case of 5G home internet, inside of our homes.
For most people, fears about 5G and health are rooted in the idea of EMF (electromagnetic radio frequencies), also known as “radiation.” Radiation is a concept with some very unsettling connotations.
Radiation and 5G
Radiation’s bad reputation isn’t all the fault of Godzilla movies and comic books. It’s a real-world fact that radiation can damage cells and cause cancer. Radiation can’t create viruses or bacteria, but some types of radiation can cause cancer or, in even higher doses, acute radiation poisoning.
The key to understanding radiation, though, is to know just how broad of a category it really is. For something to be considered radiation (or EMF — they’re the same thing), it has to move like a wave, move at the speed of light, and have electric and magnetic fields (or, together, an “electromagnetic field”).
Gamma radiation — the classic, scary, Godzilla-creating type of radiation — fits this definition, but so do many other things. Visible light, for example, moves like a wave, has an electromagnetic field, and (naturally) moves at the speed of light. When you look at a rainbow, you’re gazing at pure radiation. Yet you’re not in danger, because visible light is a very different type of radiation than atomic radiation.
The big difference here is wavelength. By definition, radiation moves like a wave, and it’s the length of that wave that tells us which type of radiation we’re dealing with.
On a small scale, wavelength differences separate red from blue and orange from purple. On a larger scale, these differences distinguish harmless colors from dangerous gamma radiation.
Broadly speaking, we expect radiation with shorter wavelengths to be more dangerous. The shorter the wavelength, the easier it is for radiation to penetrate our cells and affect our DNA — which could cause cancerous mutations.
“Exposing” the Truth
Wavelengths are our top concern with radiation, but we also need to think about two other things: the intensity of a given exposure and its length. Increasing these things gives radiation more chances to hurt us. For example, X-rays are more dangerous than ultraviolet rays, but we don’t spend much time in X-ray machines; therefore, long-term sun exposure ends up being riskier.
The bottom line: Radiation, or EMF, is an incredibly broad category that includes everything from atomic fallout to the color pink. The fact that 5G uses “radiation” is not necessarily a cause for concern; it matters which type of radiation we’re dealing with.
Does 5G Cause Cancer?
The radio frequencies that 5G uses are a type of radiation, and some types of radiation can cause cancer. Cancer risks increase with an exposure’s length and intensity. So where does that leave us?
The news is overwhelmingly good. While 5G’s frequencies are higher than those used by previous mobile standards, we’re still looking at wavelengths that are relatively long. The wavelengths used by 5G communication fall somewhere in between those of radio waves and visible light. The general group of wavelengths that we’re dealing with here are called “microwaves.”
Now We’re Cooking
If microwave frequencies are so unlikely to cause cancer, then why isn’t it safe to stick your head in a microwave oven? Microwave ovens use a lot of radiation in an enclosed space, and the EMF created causes molecules to move, trying to get their magnetic poles in line with the field. That movement heats things up.
As safe as 5G radiation is, we still want to think about intensity and exposure time. Happily, these aren’t huge issues. Intensity is at its greatest at the tops of 5G cell towers, where communications are constantly coming and going — and, even up there, the risk to humans is relatively low. Down here on the ground, it’s negligible. With such harmless wavelengths and low intensity, even a lifetime of exposure to 5G radiation is going to be quite safe.
As is typical in science, experts are reluctant to speak in absolutes. But we can get a more precise sense of the meaning of “quite safe” in this context by looking at the classification system used by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which slots 5G into the same risk category as “eating pickled vegetables” (both are considered “unproven,” and presumably unlikely, sources of cancer). Both are in a lower risk category than “eating processed meat” — which is itself quite unlikely to give you cancer.
In short: We don’t need to worry about 5G causing cancer.
Does 5G Make Us More Susceptible to COVID-19?
Not everyone who worries about 5G is concerned about cancer. Others are worried that 5G could cause coronavirus or (in a more common version of the concern) compromise the human immune system, making us more vulnerable to the virus.
This idea most likely comes from the correlation between the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rollout of 5G. But the fact that both are happening at the same time is just a coincidence. Radiation can’t cause COVID-19 because COVID is a virus, not a cancer-like mutation.
There’s also no reason to fear that 5G is affecting anyone’s immune system. Radiation doesn’t attack the immune system in any unusual way.
Of course, the dangerous types of radiation can hurt any part of your body, so radiation that hits the lymph nodes (something seen with some breast cancer treatments) can cause immune system issues. But radiation doesn’t sneak in like a saboteur and target our immune system — broadly speaking, it either hurts us all over or it doesn’t. 5G, happily, doesn’t.
It’s also important to remember that, while 5G frequencies are higher than those used by 4G, we’re still talking about the same general swath of the electromagnetic spectrum. So while COVID-19’s arrival syncs up with 5G’s, it doesn’t really line up with the arrival of microwaves in the air. Microwaves were out there with 4G and 3G, too — and, in fact, with radar use as far back as the 1930s.
What About Workers in Close Proximity to 5G Towers?
We’ve established that 5G’s relatively safe wavelength and the low levels of exposure that we experience on the ground are enough to make 5G perfectly safe for a typical person. But what if you were to climb a 5G tower and put yourself right where exposure is at its most intense — would that be safe, too?
Once again, the short answer is yes, experts do believe this is perfectly safe. The American Cancer Society, among other groups, has compiled the evidence and come to the consensus that modern cell towers are safe even for the workers who climb them to maintain them. Naturally, the same good news applies to buildings near the tower, the ground at the base of the tower, and other places in close proximity.
It’s also worth noting that 5G cell towers (and all other cell towers) are built with certain guidelines in mind. The GSMA, for example — a group run by mobile communications companies — issues reports with guidelines for safe practices. Government regulatory agencies have their say, too: Cell towers and the workers who maintain them must abide by the CDC’s rules for RF (radio frequency) safety, which limit public exposure to approximately 580 microwatts per square centimeter. The reality on the ground is nowhere near that limit, and workers who climb the towers wear suits made of protective material to further limit any risk.
Environmental Concerns: Is 5G Hurting Birds, Trees, or Even the Weather?
Scientists are confident that 5G isn’t harmful to humans, and — as we’ve seen — the facts back this up. But what about our environment, from animals to trees to global weather?
Does 5G Harm Animals?
A lot of what we know about how 5G affects (or fails to affect) humans also applies to how it may affect animals. However, scientists tend to be very careful about the claims they make without hard evidence, even in cases where the logic may seem pretty straightforward.
With that said, it’s a good bet that large animals are safe from 5G. After all, we humans are large animals of a sort!
Smaller animals could be more susceptible to the type of radiation that 5G towers emit. The reason is heat. Radiation with long wavelengths can generate a bit of heat even as it fails to get into cells and mess up DNA. So while animals are probably not going to get cancer from 5G, they could get a tiny bit warmer. And while this heat change is imperceptible to most animals (and to us), it could, in theory, cause problems for bugs.
Does 5G Harm Bugs?
Bugs have a few disadvantages here. For one thing, they’re very small. For another, they are cold-blooded creatures without a good way to regulate their body temperatures. And, crucially, bugs use the temperature to guide their behavior. Bugs aren’t big critical thinkers, and small changes in temperature can cause them to make big decisions related to mating, migration, and other big facts of bug life. This is why global warming has been such a problem for bugs, and it’s why some experts fear that even relatively harmless 5G waves could cause issues for bugs. The fear is based in part on computer simulations. Several studies have been able to connect familiar types of radiation to problems with bug behavior.
Still, it’s not a sure bet that real-world levels of 5G radiation will be enough to change bug behavior. It’s also worth noting that global warming is a significantly bigger factor in the world of bug body temperatures.
Does 5G Harm Birds?
Birds aren’t quite as small as bugs, but they do have a habit of hanging out in high places — like 5G cell towers, where exposure to 5G’s radio frequencies is at its most intense. That makes birds a potential area of concern, and scientists have considered this problem.
At least one study has been able to connect mutations in bird eggs to the frequencies used by 5G. However, exposure time and intensity matter a lot, and we’re not likely to see big problems with birds under real-world conditions.
Does 5G Harm Trees?
Trees, though, are remarkably resilient in the face of radiation. The cells of trees and plants can typically create new cells of any type — for example, the cells in a tree’s leaves can create root cells, and vice versa. That’s why gardeners can create new plants from cuttings, and scientists believe it may be why trees and other plants are unusually able to survive cancers and the high levels of radiation that cause them. In the infamously radioactive Chernobyl exclusion zone, dense vegetation is flourishing in a place that’s still inhospitable to humans.
In other words, trees would likely tough it out even if 5G were dangerous; and, as we know, it’s not. 5G radiation is low risk and low intensity, especially way down on the ground — which, naturally, is where we’d expect to find the trees.
Can 5G Affect the Weather? What About 5G and Climate Change?
The idea that 5G technology could affect the weather is sometimes dismissed as conspiracy-theory thinking, but it’s not an inherently silly question. After all, human activities have changed the weather plenty of times. Deforestation can affect wind patterns, for example, making nearby areas windier, colder, and (many scientists believe) less prone to precipitation. And human technology has affected climate, of course, in the form of greenhouse gases that warm our planet.
Could we change the weather with radiation if we really wanted to? Probably! For example, we can use microwave ovens to heat our food, and the same principle could heat up water molecules in the air. But a weather-changing device like this would probably look very different from 5G technology. The aimless, ambient waves coming off of 5G towers and criss-crossing the globe from smartphone to smartphone aren’t aimed at clouds or cold fronts, and might not produce much of an effect even if they were. They won’t do much to heat water or any other substance in the air, and the tiny impact they do have is so small that (as we discussed earlier) scientists aren’t even sure it’s enough to affect a bee or a housefly.
In other words, 5G radiation isn’t going to impact the weather in any detectable way.
Weather or Not
While 5G isn’t going to have an impact on our weather, some experts think it could have an impact on weather forecasting. The frequencies used by 5G communication are similar to those used by radar systems, and radar is a big part of weather tracking and prediction. How much 5G will interfere with meteorology is still a matter of debate, however; some experts are more concerned than others about the possibility of interference.
As for climate, that’s a very reasonable area of concern. Human activities are rapidly warming the planet. But information and communication technologies as a whole account for just 4 percent of global electricity use and only 1.4 percent of global carbon emissions. 5G’s arrival won’t drastically change this math. And even if we were to slash our use of communications technology to below our current rates, it’s not clear that we’d be helping the planet; after all, communications infrastructure is what allows for some of our most planet-friendly choices, such as telecommuting instead of driving to the office and emailing or calling instead of printing, mailing, and faxing.
Cybersecurity Concerns: Is Your Data Secure on 5G?
5G isn’t dangerous to our health, isn’t believed to have a significant impact on animals, won’t mess with plants, and can’t affect the weather. But there’s still one concern left to address: Is 5G secure?
The short answer is yes. In fact, 5G is actually significantly more secure than its wireless predecessors, including 4G. The big change is that 5G communications encrypt your device’s identity. With older wireless standards, data thieves could try to set up signals that impersonated cell towers, hoping to get smartphones and other devices to send transmissions to them instead of to the real towers. With ID encryption, this approach becomes obsolete.
5G also encrypts the communications itself — even scrambling your voice on phone calls. This makes intercepting your transmissions a lot less appealing to crooks. While it’s possible to crack encryption of this sort, it’s a pretty tough thing to do, and a smart bad guy will realize that it’s just not worth the effort.
5G improves security in several other ways, too, some of them more complex than others. 5G uses “edge” computing, an improvement on cloud computing that directs traffic and finds the nearest servers in order to keep communication distances shorter. This allows for improved threat detection. Like 4G before it, 5G also gives more options to developers of connected apps, which opens up new options for increased security on apps that need it.
To the extent that experts worry about 5G security, they’re mostly focused on the way that low-band 5G makes use of existing 4G infrastructure; some experts think that will cause 5G to inherit certain vulnerabilities that already exist with the LTE networks we’re already using.
Of course, at the end of the day, you’ll always need to be careful on the internet. If you get tricked by a phishing scam and send your personal data directly to a criminal, it won’t really matter if your connection itself is secure — just like an armored truck won’t help you if you drive it directly to a bank robber’s house. And if you connect your smartphone to every public Wi-Fi network you come across, crooks won’t have to deal with 5G at all — they can get on the same network as you just by sitting down next to you at Starbucks. You’ll still need to use your common sense and watch out for scams on the internet, regardless of whether or not you’re using 5G. You’ll also need to take basic steps to secure your home Wi-Fi network, whether you’re using 5G home internet, fiber internet, or any other type of connection.
As long as you do your part, though, you should be quite safe on 5G connections. 5G is the most secure wireless standard yet.
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