We’re all normalized to seeing each other at the gym with our respective earbuds and headphones, smartphones in sleeves and a gaggle of other technologies to help us track our fitness.
Some of these devices use sensors to feed information to apps, while others use Bluetooth to connect directly to our smartphones to give us feedback or simply allow us to listen to music, audiobooks or a podcast during our workouts. Whatever these technologies do, they’re pulling the smartphone—and other wireless devices—further into the center of our daily routines. That means we are keeping these devices close by or right on our bodies most of the day and maybe at night.
These devices are about to get a big upgrade with the arrival of 5G networks and, more important, smartphones and other gadgets made for this technology are on the way, as seen at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. Our phones and devices run on cellular digital wireless networks, and 5G is the fifth generation of this technology. It is slated to replace or—in some instances—augment 4G networks. This new generation of network is engineered to be 100 times faster than 4G (fourth generation), so you get faster video downloads and uploads. Overall, communications between devices will be faster and more efficient, and that is expected to help accommodate driverless cars and create a whole new economy based in part on the internet of things.
With the arrival of 5G has come concern—in existence even before this technology—regarding our exposure to radio frequency radiation. New concerns arise because this new generation will require more transmission antennas, placed much closer to our homes, neighborhoods and businesses, changing the level of our exposure to radio frequency radiation. Citizens groups, cities and many scientists have expressed concern over 5G and have pushed to ban or at least place a moratorium on the network’s rollout.
To be sure, there are studies that find no elevated risk in tumors or cancers (in the brain or otherwise) from wireless phone usage just as there are studies that do find an increased incidence of tumors and cancer. With competing conclusions, where does that leave us in regard to the relative safety of our wireless devices and 5G technology?
All wireless communication devices emit radiation, energy that travels in invisible waves that vary in power and are organized along the electromagnetic spectrum. This scale divides radiation into two types: non-ionizing (lower frequencies, lower power) and ionizing (higher frequencies, higher power). Cellphones, Wi-Fi routers and other radio frequency devices operate within the band of non-ionizing radiation, meaning the radiation from these devices isn’t powerful enough to pull electrons from atoms and molecules, so it’s not considered harmful.
UV radiation, X-Rays and gamma rays occupy the band of ionizing radiation. So this radiation is powerful enough to strip electrons from atoms, and the radiation they emit damages DNA inside of cells. Long-term damage to DNA causes mutations that can lead to cancer, and that’s why it’s recommended you limit your lifetime exposure to X-Rays, for instance.
What’s different about 5G
The current 4G network, 3G and previous cellular networks mount antennas on tall towers—far away from users. Signals from these towers can travel great distances, so you can be between 20 and 45 miles from a tower and still get a signal. These signals travel easily through buildings and obstacles. So carriers can set up coverage for a city or region with a few towers. This is what has made it possible for rural areas and other countries and regions left out of the original telecommunications revolution—if you want to think of landlines as revolutionary—to leapfrog into the modern communications age, albeit on 2G and 3G technology.
But as we’ve all moved to using smartphones and streaming video entertainment and chilling, we’ve run out of room in the current band of the electromagnetic spectrum real estate.
The 5G network will operate in a different band at a higher frequency. Carriers like Verizon and AT&T plan to use millimeter wave technology to deploy their 5G networks. Millimeter waves operate at frequencies that are used for radar and satellites. At these frequencies, the signal can’t travel through buildings and obstacles, and it can be absorbed by foliage and rain.
The range of a 5G antenna is between 500 to 1,000 feet, so in addition to antenna towers, more small cell transmitters, placed closer to users, will be needed. That means transmitters on individual buildings, traffic lights and lower-standing antenna poles.
These changes in frequency used and proximity of transmitters to users has caused concern in cities across the country. In late 2018, the Federal Communications Commission issued an order limiting the actions local communities could take to regulate the development of the 5G network with an eye toward expediting the network’s rollout.
In response, Montgomery County in Maryland, along with cities all over the counry—from Baltimore to Austin to Eugene to Seattle to San Francisco and even territories like Puerto Rico—sued the FCC to regain local control in this regard. Just last August, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the FCC rules.
What’s a citizen to do?
For now, 4G and earlier technologies are what’s in use throughout the country. If you’re concerned about 5G and where your community stands, you can contact your city or town council to see what the plans are for any network upgrades. You also can contact your state representatives about plans for network upgrades or if any studies are to be done.
If you’re in favor of moving forward with 5G, let your representative know that. Contacting your representatives to register how you feel about studies, legislation and actions is an important part of representative democracy.
As for assessing your relative safety with wireless devices, scientists from all sides of this issue concede that more and better studies need to be done. There are many limitations on studies already done. For instance, in a 2016 study from the U.S. National Toxicology Program, rats receiving no exposure to radio frequency radiation developed tumors while those receiving high levels of radio frequency radiation did not. A whole set of studies on exposure have been conducted on rats and other animals, and major bodies of science are finding that conclusions from animal-based studies don’t necessarily translate well when applied to humans.
If you’re looking into studies, consider where the researchers are getting their funding. Henry Lai, Ph.D., a bioengineering professor at the University of Washington, reviewed cellphone radiation studies conducted between 1990 and 2006. Of the 326 studies he examined, Lai discovered that half found a biological effect because of radio frequency radiation and half did not. But when he split this sample of studies into those in which researchers received cellular industry funding and those that did not, the results were different: Industry-funded studies found radio frequency radiation health issues 30 percent of the time compared with 70 percent incidence in independently funded studies.
General guidelines to follow for use and exposure include the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which calls for limiting the screen time and exposure for children and teenagers.
AAP and even the manufacturers recommend not having your device on your body—so not in a pocket, in a bra or against your head. Apple’s iPhone manuals state that they test for radio frequency radiation at the highest transmission level and simulate either against the head or in clothing that creates 5 millimeters of separation. That’s about the width of a pencil eraser. With the Apple Watch, the company recommends that if you’re using it near your face, you keep 10 millimeters of separation. Samsung recommends 1.5 centimeters for its Galaxy phones.
All the manufacturers recommend using hands-free modes, which keep the phone away from your head and farther from your body to reduce exposure as well as the bigger issue— distractions. So you can focus more on your work, workout, drive or ride.
Photo credit: Zephyr18, Getty Images