5G is Here. Is It a Technological Leap Forward — or a Health Concern?

CHICAGO (Chicago Tribune/TNS) —
5G health
A sign advertises 5G at the Qualcomm booth at CES International in Las Vegas, in January. (AP Photo/John Locher)

5G, the fifth generation of wireless, promises lightning-fast download speeds and could lay the foundation for high-tech advancements like self-driving cars. But like many new technologies, it’s sparking concern about potential health issues.

The first generation of wireless ushered in mobile phones and 2G brought texting. 3G laid the groundwork for smartphones, and 4G allowed video streaming and more. 5G is expected to download data 20 times faster than its predecessor, and some experts argue it could be much faster.

And it’s not just about streaming data faster, it’s about streaming more of it. On a 5G network, a user can download a movie instantly and data will flow between connected objects without delay. The amount of data people use on mobile devices has gone up 40 times since 2010, and is only expected to increase. 5G networks are wireless companies’ attempts to satisfy that demand.

5G taps into millimeter waves at the top of the radio spectrum, which have not previously been used for telecommunication. The higher waves allow for faster transfer of data, but they also don’t travel through buildings, trees and rain like previous generations of wireless, which operate on lower wavelengths.

That means wireless companies must install more equipment with 5G than they did with previous generations of wireless. That includes new base stations and antennas on parking garages, or equipment on light poles that fill gaps for cellular coverage.

The untested nature of 5G, and the extensiveness of its infrastructure, have some worried that the increased exposure could have serious health effects.

Wireless safety advocates have called for more studies on the effects of the exposure, and one group is trying to stop the rollout of 5G networks in Chicago’s neighborhoods. Verizon and Sprint turned on their 5G networks in parts of Chicago earlier this year, putting the city among the first in the nation with access to 5G. AT&T plans to turn on parts of its Chicago network later this year, and T-Mobile is aiming for 2020.

The federal government has safety rules that wireless companies must abide by that limit human exposure to radio waves, including frequencies used with 5G. Wireless industry association CTIA says typical exposure to 5G infrastructure is comparable to Bluetooth devices and baby monitors, and there is no scientific evidence of adverse health effects.

The companies, for their part, say they abide by the wireless network standards set by the Federal Communications Commission.

Still, assurances from government agencies and industry operators are not enough for Chicago resident Judy Blake. Additional studies on 5G’s health impacts likely wouldn’t soothe her either, she said. People can’t choose whether or not to be exposed to this radiation.

“I don’t need another test. The only test that’s going to happen now is people’s lives,” said Blake, 67.

Though little is known about the long-term health impact of the millimeter waves that 5G operates on, some research has shown short-term exposure could be problematic, said Joel Moskowitz, a public health expert at the University of California at Berkeley.

The eyes and sweat glands are among several body parts studies have shown could be at risk, Moskowitz said. Insects and plant life could also be affected, he added.

Additionally, studies on the impact of radiation from radio waves used by previous generations of wireless have raised health concerns, and some 5G networks will operate in part on those lower-frequency waves too.

The findings concern Chicago resident Kristin Welch.

“We absolutely need to study these high-frequency waves … before you put (this new equipment) in front of someone’s home or a school,” said Welch, 39. “We’re putting the cart before the horse here.”

The mother of three recently co-founded a social-media group called “Stop 5G Chicago,” aimed at halting the rollout of the network in residential areas. Welch said she is especially worried about the impact the radiation could have on vulnerable populations, like children and expectant women.

“This is not an unreasonable thing to be concerned about,” Welch said. “We are now in a position where this untested technology is going to be widespread throughout our city.”

The wireless companies are using different technologies and techniques to achieve the new 5G standards. Sprint, for example, is building out its 5G network mostly on top of its 4G footprint in Chicago. It’s installing new radios and other equipment on existing stations.

The millimeter waves used in 5G are absorbed by the upper layers of skin, potentially causing the temperature of the skin to rise, said Suresh Borkar, senior lecturer in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The effects of extended rises in skin temperature “becomes a big unknown,” he said.

Wireless industry association CTIA said in a statement that cellphone users’ safety is important, and it follows the guidance of experts regarding health effects.

“Following numerous scientific studies conducted over several decades, the FCC, the FDA, the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society and numerous other international and U.S. organizations and health experts continue to say that the scientific evidence shows no known health risk to humans due to the RF (radio frequency) energy emitted by antennas and cellphones,” the CTIA statement said.

This isn’t the first time people will come into contact with millimeter waves: They’re also used in airport body scanners, said Lav Varshney, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Still, it’s the first time the high-frequency waves will be used on such a scale, and concerns surrounding new technologies are common throughout history.

“When cars first started replacing horse-drawn carriages, people were afraid of what the health impacts of traveling at high speeds would be,” Varshney said. “There has always been occurrence of this fear.”

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