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Imagine if a new technology was being proposed that would provide a substantial convenience, to the point that most people would use it in one form or another, and our economic infrastructure would be reshaped around this new technology. However, the technology involves some risk and scientists estimate that 50,000 people in the US would die each year as a consequence of its widespread use. There is even risk to people who do not use the technology. With optimized safety measures and regulations we could get this number down to 35,000 or so. Would the new technology be worth the risk?

I am talking, of course, about automobiles. In 2017 in the US, 37,000 people were killed in automobile accidents. The point is that we accept some risk along with the convenience of some modern technologies. We pump explosive gas into homes to use for cooking and heating. Sometimes there is a risk-benefit – heating homes keeps people from freezing to death, and automobiles can be used to save lives as well. But we also engage in risky pastimes, like skiing.

This context is important as we consider adopting new technologies. Nothing is without risk, and the best we can do is minimize risk, and consider the overall risk to benefit ratio of any new technology. Demanding zero risk, however, is unrealistic and will likely cause more harm than it prevents.

The 5G question

This background is important while considering the imminent role out of 5G technology. This refers to a new standard in wireless communication, using a carrier electromagnetic wave of higher frequency than the current 4G. It is the fifth generation wireless standard.

We are already increasingly dependent on computers, the internet, and wireless technology to connect. The promise of 5G is that it will increase information throughput, allowing for faster communication and decreased lag time. This will do more than just decrease download times or streaming quality, but also allow for the full realization of the “internet of things” that will connect many everyday devices and allow for new functionality.

Of course this is partly hype, and we will have to see how much of an effect it actually has. But computer and internet technology has more than lived up to the hype recently. It has transformed our world, on a level equal to the internal combustion engine. I think it’s fair to predict that there will be substantial benefits to the new technology.

The real controversy surrounds the question of risk. If we are about to flood our environment with 5G electromagnetic fields (EMF), what are the health risks? There is some controversy about the science itself, but mainly opinions vary in terms of how to interpret the implications of that risk.

First we need to differentiate hazard vs risk, a common source of confusion. Hazard is merely the potential for causing harm. A loaded gun is a hazard. Risk is the probability of actual harm. If that loaded gun is locked away in a safe, then the risk it poses is minimized. If that same loaded gun is in the hands of a child, the risk is huge.

So what is the potential hazard posed by exposure to 5G? Part of the problem is that as technology progresses, it presents a moving target for research. There is a lot of research into the biological effects of EMF exposure, but then when a new technology emerges it can be argued that we need a whole new set of research on this specific version of the technology.

Another source of disagreement is over exposure times. What if there are biological effects only after 10 years of exposure? Whatever research currently exists, you can always ask – but what if the risk kicks in at longer or higher exposure? These are legitimate questions, but the point is that we never get to the point that the question is closed, and zero hazard has been proven.

Currently the only proven biological effect of exposure to EMF, even at 5G frequencies, is slight tissue heating. There are many other effects hinted at in the research, but none have been reliably replicated and therefore are not established. Further, many of the biological effects are simply looking at changes in markers of biological activity. They don’t show actual hazard, just the potential for hazard if we make a chain of assumptions about what the markers mean.

For example, EMF has been shown to increase oxidative stress. But does this result in actual biological harm, or does the body simply adjust and reach a new homeostasis without harm? Oxidative stress is a normal consequence of metabolism, and organisms already have powerful antioxidants to deal with it.

The majority of scientists, including organizations and regulatory bodies like the National Cancer Institute, the FDA, and the EPA, look at this research and conclude that the hazard is minimal and the current safety limits are adequate. But some scientists have looked at this same data and come to a different conclusion, emphasizing extreme caution.

One such group I have written about before. They wrote a petition to the WHO which seems to get mentioned in virtually all media coverage of the topic. My recent linked article covers in detail why this group, in my opinion, is not credible and is likely highly biased, so I just refer you to that prior article.

The bottom line is that the consensus is that there isn’t much potential hazard from 5G, but there is a lot of speculative hazard that is driving a lot of the media concern. We do need to continue to do research, as the technology changes, so this will be an evolving area that does need monitoring. But at present there does not appear to be a reason to ban the technology.

What about risk of 5G? Obviously, we won’t know that until it is actually rolled out and in widespread use. But we can research the risk of technology already in use. The research fails to consistently show any correlation between degree of cell phone exposure and risk of cancer or tumors. (Most of the research involves cell phones because it is the most common source of exposure.) Again, you can never prove zero risk. But we can say any remaining risk is likely minimal. We will have to continue to monitor risk as 5G is adopted.

So both hazard and risk with wireless technology in general appear to be minimal, and well below the current safety recommendations. However, we have to acknowledge the uncertainty inherent in an evolving technology. The practical implications of this uncertainty is that:

  • We need to continue to do various kinds of research to monitor health hazard and risk as the technology and its use continue to evolve.
  • Common sense behaviors to reduce exposure, especially in children and pregnant women, are reasonable. For example, phones can be used held in front of your face, rather than held up to your ear. Or you can use hands-free technology when convenient.
  • Technology companies should consider features that minimize the exposure of users when designing applications.

I consider these recommendations to be out of an abundance of caution, meaning they may not be strictly necessary, but are a nod to the unavoidable uncertainty in the research. I don’t see any reason to stop the adoption of 5G or to avoid the technology completely. Further, as time goes by and we continue to monitor real world risk, hopefully our confidence in the safety of the technology will grow.

In terms of the risk vs convenience ratio, wireless technology is already far superior to many other technologies, like cars, that we take for granted.

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Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.