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Mobile phones and health: is 5G being rolled out too fast?

European countries are rolling out 5G mobile communications at breakneck speed as they seek to gain a competitive edge over the US and Asia. But some scientists have raised questions about the effects of 5G mobile phone radiation on public health and are calling for a precautionary approach

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By 2020, at least one major city in every state in the European Union (EU) is due to have a 5G mobile phone service in operation, and by 2025, three-quarters of the European population is expected to have 5G access. 

The new mobile phone technology promises to bring huge economic benefits, in the form of superfast mobile services, smart cities and intelligent devices connected and controlled through the internet of things.

It’s no surprise that Europe is racing to create a smart society, with the UK government one of many aiming to expedite 5G roll-out. London alone has nine trial sites.

Network operator EE has chosen 16 cities across the country to welcome its 5G services this year. Vodafone presented the captain of Manchester City’s women’s football team performing ball tricks on stage as a hologram at its launch. And Nokia has demonstrated how robots can solve intricate tasks in collaboration using 5G.

Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, “shares the government’s ambition for the UK to become a world leader in 5G” and plans “to release different types of spectrum bands for 5G as soon as practicable”. The watchdog has committed “to ensure site access and planning are not a barrier to the deployment of 5G”.

But behind the scenes, there is an ongoing debate about whether the telecoms industry and governments are rushing to implement the society of tomorrow, without fully scrutinising the long-term health effects of the electromagnetic radiation produced by 5G.

The radiation produced by mobile phones and phone masts is non-ionising radiation, which means that it does not directly cause cell and DNA damage, through the same mechanisms as X-rays or radioactive particles.

But electromagnetic radiation in high power densities can cause damage through other mechanisms, such as thermal damage by heating the skin in much the same way that a microwave oven cooks food. 

Scientists argue for more research

The Swiss Foundation for Research on Information Technologies in Society (IT’IS) is an independent, non-profit organisation that researches the safety and quality of emerging electromagnetic technologies. 

The foundation’s director and co-founder, Niels Kuster, says the implementation of 5G will use much higher frequency bands than 2G, 3G or 4G to satisfy the growing demand in data rates, but this induces much higher power density in human skin. 

“Health risks associated with the omnipresent radio-frequency radiation for mobile devices [must be] studied before we expose the whole population [to] ever-rising levels of the electromagnetic fields from this technology”
Ernst von Weizsäcker, scientist

His colleague, Esra Neufeld, a scientist and consultant, adds: “The current standards do not prevent thermal damage of the skin and should be corrected in the next revision of the guidelines.” 

5G will operate in a range of frequencies known as the millimetre wave band. Neufeld says there are “almost no studies at the millimetre wave range which can be used [to assess] risks” that technology poses for people, and such research is urgently needed.

One of the most renowned experts on environment policy in Germany, professor Ernst von Weizsäcker, goes further, calling for the deployment of 5G to be delayed until its risks are understood.

“We do not know for sure whether the mobile data transmission technology poses health risks, but we cannot yet exclude it either,” he says.

“Thus, we must insist that the health risks associated with the omnipresent radio-frequency radiation for mobile devices are studied before we expose the whole population with ever-rising levels of the electromagnetic fields from this technology.”

International safety standards

With few exceptions, governments on several continents are supporting and promoting the upgrade of mobile telecommunications to 5G frequencies which offer faster download speeds. 

Governments, including the UK, take advice on radiation limits from a German-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which has become the de facto organisation for assessing mobile safety and setting radiation exposure limits.

Eric Van Rongen, who chairs ICNIRP, tells us: “ICNIRP establishes whether health effects have been found and, on the basis of that, sets its limits. That is done with a large degree of conservatism.”

“The International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection establishes whether health effects have been found and, on the basis of that, sets its limits. That is done with a large degree of conservatism”
Eric Van Rongen, ICNIRP

While many 5G pilots are already under way, ICNIRP is reviewing its own mobile technology-related radiation advice and is expected to release revised limits later this year. ICNIRP is an independent body, which is not subjected to the same levels of scrutiny received by public organisations.

Governments are aware of health fears over technologies. The EU Treaty and the European Commission refer to the precautionary principle, which should guide decisions to implement products or policies with unknown risks. In the 5G roll-out frenzy, most governments observe ICNIRP’s limits, which set safe exposure levels for electromagnetic radiation produced by mobile phones, phone towers and other radio emissions.

Some countries take the issue more seriously than others. France has prohibited Wi-Fi in kindergartens and restricted the use of Wi-Fi in primary schools. Cyprus has done the same. Switzerland has legally binding precautionary limits that are 10 times stricter for mobile communications installations than those of ICNIRP. Italy, Poland and Luxembourg have also set lower exposure limits than those of ICNIRP.

This cautious approach is not without problems. In Italy, for example, the country’s lower limits meant it was difficult to upgrade 3G antenna sites to 4G without reconfiguring the sites.

But this is not preventing the fast-track deployment of 5G networks across Europe.

Spectacular fast-tracking

Norway is contemplating driverless buses and remote medical diagnosis. Telenor, a Norwegian multinational telecommunications company, is planning 5G test sites in Oslo and is also eyeing Svalbard, one of the most northern settlements in Europe, with around 2,700 inhabitants, for further trials.

Telenor is also present in Kongsberg, the first 5G pilot town in Scandinavia, where it works with the Norwegian Air Ambulance Foundation, among others. Telia, a Swedish telephone company and mobile network operator, has launched a 5G cinema in Oslo.

Norway’s government advised municipalities to keep fees down and expedite applications for the placement of antennas in 5G infrastructure. Last year, prime minister Erna Solberg committed to removing obstacles that could slow the development of 5G, especially for the deployment of base stations and antennas. Municipalities are expected to facilitate operators’ access to masts, buildings, antenna towers and poles, according to a 2017 letter from minister of transport and communications Ketil Solvik-Olsen obtained by Investigate Europe and Computer Weekly. 

Emergency services will be greatly helped by 5G, explained Telenor Chief Technology Officer Ingeborg Øfsthus, here with CEO Sigve Brekke, at the launch of Scandinavia’s 5G pilot in Kongsberg, Norway, on 8 November 2018

Proponents of 5G claim that everything can be “smart” – cars, apartments, societies. It is hailed by the telecommunications industry as “a revolution”.

But the new technology will require major investments and access to radio frequencies with a capacity to handle massive flows of data. As 5G is rolled out, neighbourhoods will be fitted with mobile phone masts or base stations in large numbers – network hardware is being installed on street lamps. This, critics believe, could expose populations to levels of electromagnetic radiation that will exceed current levels. The mobile industry, understandably, disagrees.

The debate around the potential health impact of the electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation produced by 5G is intensifying. The problem is that nobody can yet know its long-term effects.

The health risk debate

David Carpenter is a professor and director of the Institute for Health and the Environment, University at Albany, in the US, and a critic of 5G and its potential impact on health. 

“In my judgement, we already have clear evidence for elevations in brain and other cancers resulting from excessive exposure to mobile phone, Wi-Fi and other sources of electromagnetic fields,” he says.

He claims that there is “clear evidence” of reduced fertility in both sexes and says some people are electro-hypersensitive, showing fatigue, headaches and cognitive disturbances when in the presence of electromagnetic fields.

“In my judgement, we already have clear evidence for elevations in brain and other cancers resulting from excessive exposure to mobile phone, Wi-Fi and other sources of electromagnetic fields”
David Carpenter, University at Albany

Carpenter points out that “there has not been adequate study of the adverse effects of electromagnetic fields in general and there has been almost no study of the specific higher frequencies to be used in 5G”.

He says: “5G will place mobile base stations in every urban street in front of about every sixth house. You will not be able to walk down the sidewalk without being continuously exposed, and most people will have elevated exposure in their homes.”

Carpenter is not the only one who questions whether the studies on the impact of EMF radiation on health conducted so far are sufficient to meet public health concerns.

Biomedical researcher Agostino Di Ciaula, a consultant at the Hospital of Bisceglie in Italy, has studied how the millimetre wave frequencies necessary for 5G can alter genes and cells.

He argues that the low power required by the technology means a higher number of antennas, which, in turn, will increase exposure to related radiation.

“Results already available should be sufficient to invoke the respect of the precautionary principle…considering the large number of subjects involved in this form of environmental exposure and classifiable as vulnerable,” he says.

Can scientific research shine a light?

Scientific studies across many years have shown that electromagnetic radiation put out by mobile phone infrastructure can cause damage to cells and DNA – even from levels of electromagnetic radiation currently regarded as safe.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified EMF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 2011. In other words, there is evidence that EMF radiation may have the potential to cause cancer in humans.

In April 2019, IARC identified non-ionizing radiation, which includes EMF radiation, as a high priority for further study following a major review of cancer causing agents published in the Lancet. It reported that there was new 'bioassay and mechanistic' evidence to warrant re-evaluation of non-ionizing radation's carcinogenic classification.

Analysis of the world’s largest database of peer reviewed studies into the impact of manmade electric fields by the Bioinitiative Working Group suggests that over 68% of more than 2,000 scientific studies evaluated found “significant biological or health effects associated with exposure” to man-made electromagnetic fields.

But most studies available focus on earlier generations of mobile phones. There is hardly any research on how 5G technology affects health, although more recent research supports the earlier findings.

In 2018, studies to assess the cancer-causing potential of EMFs by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) in the US and Italy’s Ramazzini Institute found – independently of each other – that radio-frequency radiation increases the risk of cancer in rats’ brains and hearts.

In 2018, a study to assess the cancer-causing potential of EMFs by Italy’s Ramazzini Institute found that radio-frequency radiation increases the risk of cancer in rats’ brains and hearts

“This is just during their adult life. We did not have the funds to continue monitoring how rats develop when they age,” says Fiorella Belpoggi, head of research at the Ramazzini Institute.

“We would have liked to continue our research because humans have a higher likelihood to develop certain types of cancer once they pass 65. Such studies are very expensive, but it is essential to know the exposure’s long-term effects.”

In December 2018, researchers at the Swiss IT’IS institute, which receives some funding from the telecoms industry, advised that ICNIRP’s safety standards for exposure to electromagnetic radiation should be revised to prevent thermal damage.

“The recommendations in the previous ICNIRP guidelines limited the power density during short pulses to 1,000 times the limit for the time-averaged incident power density,” according to their study. The results show that a peak-to-average ratio of 1,000 “may lead to permanent tissue damage for pulsed exposures, highlighting the importance of revisiting existing exposure guidelines”.

“This shows that we have a problem. Today’s limit values are not sufficient,” according to Esra Neufeld and Niels Kuster, the IT’IS scientists responsible for the study.

Kuster is a member of several standardisation bodies concerned with compliance testing for EMF safety and serves as a consultant on the safety of wireless communications for government agencies around the globe.

But still there is uncertainty even within the scientific community. Kevin McConway, professor of applied statistics at the Open University and a specialist in medical sciences, says the jury is still out on showing a definitive link between mobile phones and health without further research.

“My tentative conclusion from recently published research studies is that nothing has really changed since 2011. There have been a few more studies but the study quality has not been high, partly because it is difficult to research, and what we still have is rather weak evidence that there might be an association for long/term or heavy users,” he says.

Phone industry confident over safety

Mobile phone companies and equipment suppliers contacted by Computer Weekly were unwilling to give interviews or make experts available to comment on mobile phone radiation and health.

They left the task to an industry body, the GSMA, which represents the interests of more than 750 mobile phone operators and 350 companies in related areas, including handset manufacturers and software developers.

The GSMA is acutely aware of public fears over the impact of mobile phone radiation on health, and has published numerous reports and guidelines for its members, including speaking points for telecoms operators and equipment manufacturers who may face questions on the topic (see “The mobile industry’s playbook for rebutting health concerns” box for more information). 

“The studies [funded by GSMA] confirmed what all well-conducted studies have shown – that if you comply with the international exposure limits, then whether we are talking about mobile phone use or mobile phone base stations, there is no convincing evidence that there is a health risk”
Jack Rowley, GSMA

Jack Rowley, senior director for research and sustainability at the GSMA, says the organisation has invested over €10m in supporting independently conducted research studies into the effects of electromagnetic radiation on health. He says the science clearly shows that mobile phone radiation poses no health risk to humans.

“Essentially, the studies [funded by GSMA] confirmed what all well-conducted studies have shown – that if you comply with the international exposure limits, then whether we are talking about mobile phone use or mobile phone base stations, there is no convincing evidence that there is a health risk,” he says.

Rowley argues that if mobile phone radiation did pose a health risk, there would be clear evidence of it by now. Take brain cancer as an example: “There is now 15 years of data that shows no risk increase,” he says.

Rowley also says there are flaws in the NTP and Ramazzini studies. For example, the mechanism that led to the growth of tumours in the studies is not clear, so that it is hard to tell whether similar effects would occur in humans. Some of the adverse health findings of the NTP study are not statistically significant, he says.

Meanwhile, the rats tested in the Ramazzini study, which studied the lifetime effects of radiation on rats, may have been at greater risk simply because of old age. One counter-intuitive finding is that rats that were exposed to more radiation live longer.

“We have to be really careful how these studies are interpreted,” he says, adding it is the totality of the scientific research that counts rather than individual studies looked at in isolation.

ICNIRP chair Van Rongen is equally cautious about the NTP study. “They only found an increase of a specific type of tumour in the heart of male rats,” he says.

“The Americans concluded, on the basis of this, that there is a clear carcinogenic effect of radio-frequency (RF) exposure. ICNIRP doesn’t share that conclusion. Most likely, the heating effect on the large male rats contributed to the increased risk of that heart tumour.”

The mobile industry’s playbook for rebutting health concerns

The GSMA, an international trade organisation that speaks for telecommunication companies, has very specific guidelines about how to deal with criticism. The key points raised in its risk communication guide include:

Public concerns

The guidelines start by acknowledging the public’s general concern about the health impact of mobile technology and warn of the impact these concerns could have on the mobile phone industry if not effectively challenged: “While many people recognise the personal benefits of mobile services, local officials and the public may have concerns about possible risks from the radio signals used by antenna sites and mobile devices. These concerns may lead to delays in acquiring new antenna sites, to negative media stories and pressure on politicians to adopt further restrictions.”

The GSMA cautions industry communicators to: “Remember that just presenting facts will never be persuasive for some people. This is because there have been many false claims by officials, scientists and even regulators in the past over a wide range of environment and health issues.”


The GSMA is sceptical of the idea that some individuals may be electro-sensitive, in other words they may be more affected by electromagnetic fields than the population in general. “Mobile phone users may attribute their own symptoms to their mobile phone use,” it says.

Anyone confronted by these claims is advised to respond along the following lines: “The WHO has concluded that while self-reported headaches and other symptoms were real, there was no scientific basis to link the symptoms to exposure to radio signals. Furthermore, the WHO says that treatment should focus on medical management of the health symptoms and not on reducing exposure to radio signals.”

Mobile antennas on school buildings

The GSMA recognises that “people have a natural instinct to protect children and that parents may perceive that the health of children is threatened when antennas are placed near homes or schools”.

But according to the trade body: “There is no scientific reason to avoid locating antennas on or near schools. In fact, exposures in the school may be lower when antennas are placed on school buildings because the signals are directed outwards not downwards. However, given the potential for a negative reaction it may be useful to consult with school representatives before a formal application is made.”

The precautionary principle

“When faced with calls for precaution,” the GSMA recommends that press officers “point out the protective exposure standards with large safety margins, the technical features that minimise unnecessary exposures, the ongoing research and the availability of consumer information as existing precautionary measures.”

Counter negative media coverage

The organisation also cautions against media coverage: “Local media will generally heighten or amplify concerns about an issue by reporting stories in a sensationalist way. Local communities trying to obstruct the power of a national company make an interesting story.” 

The GSMA considers it important for PR officers to “work positively with the media”, and one suggested way is “by placing ‘advertorials’ in local newspapers that give a more positive explanation of the proposals than would otherwise be presented.”

Interpreting research

Relying on scientific studies has its difficulties. Research shows that industry-funded scientific studies are much less likely to find adverse health effects compared to independently funded studies.

The first of these counts was done by Henry Lai, a US bioengineer who found DNA breaks from low-level radiation in the 1990s. Driven to frustration by an increasing body of contradictory research, in 2006 he analysed the available studies on mobile phone radiation done between 1990 and 2006, and their funding, according to Seattle Magazine.

What he found was that 50% of the 326 studies showed a biological effect from radio-frequency radiation and 50% didn’t. But when he filtered the studies into two stacks – those funded by the wireless industry and those funded independently – Lai discovered industry-funded studies were only 30% likely to find an effect, as opposed to 70% of the independent studies.

A European analysis found a parallel pattern in 2007. And in 2017, ORSAA (Oceania Radiofrequency Scientific Advisory Association) analysed a database of research studies and concluded that 62% of industry-funded research found no effect, whereas 77% of institution-only funded research found effects, as well as 60% of government-only funded research.

The current radiation standards applied by most European governments were set down by ICNIRP in 1998, when there was much less scientific research available and lower general exposure to radio-frequency radiation. The standards now are being updated in a way which appears to relax safety exposure limits from high radio frequencies.

ICNIRP, which sets EMF safety limits, is a private organisation of scientists funded by the German state. It has historically had multiple ties to industry. Today it requires that its members have not had “connections to industry” for the past three years.

The Cosmos study

Answers may come from another study, the Cosmos project, currently under way in Europe. Scientists in six countries are taking part in long-term scrutiny that aims to track 300,000 mobile phone users over time. Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, the UK and France are taking part. The UK is the largest participant, with 90,000 people involved. 

The study sets out to overcome limitations of earlier research. These include the Interphone study, the largest case-control study on brain cancer to date, which concluded in 2012. Interphone found a possible increased risk of gliomas for high-level mobile phone users, but the study was difficult to interpret and its conclusions uncertain. More recent meta-analyses have reached similarly mixed conclusions (see “Meta-analytic studies point to long-term risk of mobile phone use” box for more information).

Cosmos will collect information on participants’ mobile phone use from network operators and gather further data by asking them to fill in questionnaires on how much they use their mobile phone, lifestyle, health and other relevant information. This information will allow scientists to perform more accurate exposure assessments than previous large-scale epidemiological studies.

They will be able to track the health status of participants using questionnaires and health registry data for 20 to 30 years. The study will assess the risk of cancers, benign tumours, neurological and cerebrovascular diseases, headaches and sleep disorders. By pooling data across six countries, the scientists will also be able to assess the risks posed by mobile phone radiation of relatively rare conditions, such as brain cancer. 

Meta-analytic studies point to long-term risk of mobile phone use

  • A meta-analysis – a study of studies – by scientists in India, which assessed 22 earlier studies, found evidence linking mobile phone use and risk of brain tumours, especially in people who have been using a mobile phone for more than 10 years.
  • A meta-analysis by scientists in Poland found that long-term use of mobile phones was associated with a higher risk of intracranial tumours in the brain, but said more research was needed to confirm electromagnetic fields from mobile phones were carcinogenic to humans. 
  • A meta-analysis by Chinese scientists found a “significant positive association” between long-term mobile phone use and a type of brain tumour, known as a glioma.

These meta-analyses were all published in 2017.

Telecoms ‘may be found to pose health risks’

Telecoms companies reassure the public that EMF is safe. However, they adopt a more cautious approach in their annual financial reports.

In its 2017 report, Telefonica reiterates that the industry – including its business – “may be affected by the potential effects that electromagnetic fields, emitted by mobile devices and base stations, may have on people’s health”.

Deutsche Telekom warns there is “a risk of regulatory interventions, such as reduced thresholds for electromagnetic fields or the implementation of precautionary measures in mobile communications”.

Vodafone warns that infrastructure and electromagnetic signals that enable mobile communications may adversely affect health. In turn, this might trigger changes in legislation, lead to court cases or a change in mobile phone usage appetites, the company writes in its annual report. However, Vodafone claims these risks are “unlikely” to happen and they might only occur in countries that are particularly concerned over health and environmental risks.

Some leading insurers, including Lloyd’s of London syndicates, say that contrary to what advisory bodies and public authorities claim, they treat EMF as a real health risk (see “Insurance industry does not cover EMF risk” box for more information).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) EMF Project says it is “difficult to assess any chronic health effects from new technologies over the short term, especially regarding 5G, which is not yet even finalised and for which no device is yet on the market”.

Insurance industry does not cover EMF risk

Swiss Re Sonar is the world’s second largest reinsurance company, based in Zürich. Its 2013 report, Emerging risks insights, warns that EMF could pose a risk for the insurance industry: “If a direct link between EMF and human health problems were established, it would open doors for new claims and could ultimately lead to large losses under product liability covers. Liability rates would likely rise.”

In 2015, CFC Underwriting, a Lloyds-backed insurance company in the UK, renewed its insurance policy. The new policy excluded compensation for claims regarding electromagnetic fields, specifically “directly or indirectly arising out of, resulting from or contributed to by electromagnetic fields, electromagnetic radiation, electromagnetism, radio waves or noise”.

CFC Underwriting went on to say in a clarification sent to one policy holder: “The Electromagnetic Fields Exclusion (Exclusion 32) is a General Insurance Exclusion and is applied across the market as standard. The purpose of the exclusion is to exclude cover for illnesses caused by continuous long-term non-ionising radiation exposure, i.e. through mobile phone usage.”

Like most insurers, Norwegian group Gjensidige conducts internal emerging risk assessments. “Radiation from electromagnetic fields was identified as an emerging risk back in 2009. This type of risk is not one that you can buy insurance against,” said communication manager Bjarne Rystad.

“We will continue to monitor development and research on whether radiation comes with consequences for health, and the issue and the risk is still on our radar.”

What next?

ICNIRP is in the process of updating mobile phone radiation limit values – new guidelines are expected in 2019. The previous guidelines date from 1998 and a lot of new studies have been published since.

“ICNIRP evaluates the scientific literature. On the basis of that, it establishes the effects of exposure to EMF. Those established effects serve as the basis for the exposure limits that ICNIRP sets,” says Van Rongen.

“We discussed the 120 submissions and more than 1,000 individual comments received during the public consultation of our draft guidelines for exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields. At the same time, the WHO is working on an extensive review of all the literature on the exposure of EMF. We can use the information of that review.”

Van Rongen acknowledges that the only established effect of radio-frequency fields is the induction of heat in tissue. He says there is still a lot of uncertainty about other effects, such as RF exposure causing carcinogenic reactions.

When asked whether ICNIRP is convinced that there are no non-thermal effects from 5G radiation, Van Rongen concedes: “No, we’re not convinced of that. We know there are non-thermal effects. But we’re not convinced that these have been established as adverse health effects.”

Government response

The European Commission and nearly all governments are dismissive of the idea of health risks associated with the wide proliferation of electromagnetic radiation. The UK’s NHS has an advisory web page addressing such fears, which states: “Large reviews of published research have concluded that overall the evidence does not suggest that radio waves from mobile phones cause health problems. But further research is still needed to check that there are no health impacts from long-term exposures (using a mobile phone for more than 20 years).”

The radiation produced by mobile phones and phone masts is non-ionising, which means it does not directly cause cell and DNA damage through the same mechanisms as X-rays or radioactive particles

The GSMA says 5G will not expose the public to greater risks than existing mobile networks. When operators moved from 2G to 3G, there may have been small increases in radiation levels around antenna sites, while the two technologies operated in parallel, but the overall exposure limits did not rise significantly, says Rowley. Levels were still around 1,000 times smaller than the international limits set by ICNIRP.

Early results from pilot test sites show that radio-frequency exposures are unlikely to change significantly when 5G is introduced, he says.

Public resistance

Hundreds of scientists have made appeals for a moratorium on the roll-out of 5G until the health effects are known and tougher safeguards are in place.

The EMF Scientist Appeal was signed by 244 scientists in August 2018. It calls on the United Nations, WHO, UN Environmental Programme and UN member states to “address the global public health concerns related to exposure to cell phones, power lines, electrical appliances, wireless devices, wireless utility meters and wireless infrastructure in residential homes, schools, communities and businesses”.

The 5G Appeal to the EU was signed by 213 scientists in December 2018. It calls for a moratorium on the roll-out of 5G, which it claims will “substantially increase the exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields RF-EMF, which has been proven to be harmful to humans and the environment”.

The 5G Space Appeal has been signed by over 26,000 people, mostly citizens but also scientists and organisations, and claims: “If the telecommunications industry’s plans for 5G come to fruition, no person, no animal, no bird, no insect and no plant on Earth will be able to avoid exposure, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to levels of RF radiation that are tens to hundreds of times greater than what exists today, without any possibility of escape anywhere on the planet. These 5G plans threaten to provoke serious, irreversible effects on humans and permanent damage to all of the Earth’s ecosystems.”

But public appeals, even when backed by scientists, are viewed with scepticism by the mobile phone industry.

“You wouldn’t expect there to be complete unanimity. People would interpret science differently for different reasons. That is how science evolves, that is how we have a process of knowledge accumulation,” says the GSMA’s Rowley.

“I would not expect there to be a complete, 100% unanimous position, but the thing is, the agencies and the experts who have been chartered by health agencies or governments or look at the literature say, ‘compliant with the international limits, public health is protected’.”

Such assurances have done little to convince some of the public, however. Resistance to the roll-out is building in several European cities, including L’Aquilla in Italy and Gliwice in Poland. Patras, the third biggest city in Greece, froze the 5G testbed project that would have taken place in the city, citing health grounds.

Resistance to the 5G roll-out is building in several European cities

L’Aquila was hit by an earthquake in 2009. As part of the rebuilding process, it became a 5G trial city. However, its citizens are not happy with the 35m antenna, the first of 10, that has been in their city since August 2018. Residents have complained of headaches and appliances not working since the antenna appeared, and have signed a petition requesting that the municipality move the antenna and stop 5G experiments locally.

“We have already had the drama of the earthquake, we do not want to become now open-air guinea pigs,” says Italian doctor Gianmaria Umberto.

In Britain, more than 13,000 people signed a petition to Parliament calling for an independent inquiry into the health and safety risks of 5G, after a public health expert described 5G as a “massive public health experiment”.

On a smaller scale, 120 residents of Alston and Nenthead in northern England signed a Facebook petition in February 2019 calling for an end to 5G testing carried out by the 5G Rural Integrated Test Partnership (5GRIT) in their area, prompting the intervention of the Parish Council.

The Department of Health and Social Care responded to the Parliamentary petition in March 2019, saying there had been careful research into the health effects of mobile phone radiation. “The overall weight of evidence does not suggest devices producing exposures within current guidelines pose a risk to public health,” it said.

When the first 5G tests in Poland took place in Gliwice, Silesia, organised by Orange and Huawei, some residents held a street protest over fears of the negative impact transmitters could have on their health.

“There is no clear indication of the direct risk to human and animal health associated with 5G electromagnetic fields,” professor Marek Gzik, from the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering of the Silesian University of Technology, said in a public statement. “I do not expect that 5G technology will cause a dramatic increase in the incidence of cancer, but it will have an impact on our body. What kind, it is difficult to talk about it unambiguously today.”

Patras was selected by the Greek National Telecommunications and Post Commission and the ministry of digital infrastructure as one of the cities to become a testbed for the deployment of 5G in 2018.

A local citizens committee protested, raising health concerns and citing the proposed 5G testbed contract that, according to the committee, “provided for the installation of 50,000 antennas which means that in Patras the 5G deployment would lead to the installation of 300 times more antennas than with current 3G and 4G antennas”.

After deliberations that lasted for months, the municipality of Patras decided to freeze the testbed, citing the scientific uncertainty over health implications from 5G.

Smart versus cautious

The mobile technology upgrade competition is polarising and increasingly so. Economically, governments in countries that have only recently upgraded to 4G will have a tough time convincing telecoms firms to invest in a further upgrade to 5G. They will run behind those who have long greenlighted their pilot cases for where the “smart” future supersedes a vaguely defined precautionary approach.

From a legal perspective, the first 5G-related court cases have taken place (see “Court cases: citizens against companies” box for more information). Insurance companies, already sceptical, are likely to continue avoiding cover for illnesses or syndromes related to electromagnetic exposure.

There is tension growing between scientists who believe in a harmful health impact of 5G-related radiation, and those who find nothing wrong with it.

Only in March 2019, the German Federal Office For Radiation Protection (Bfs) urged further research on possible radiation risks from radiation before the country’s 5G auction. “We still have very little knowledge here and will continue our research in the medium term,” said its president, Inge Paulini.

All scientists agree further research is needed for clarity on the long-term health impact of 5G technology. In the meantime, the technology to enable 5G is being rolled out across the world.

Court cases: citizens against companies

In the absence of scientific consensus, the court system has started to become an arena for decisions on causality between mobile phones and cancer.

On 16 January 2019, an Italian tribunal ordered three government ministries – health, environment and education – to organise a serious information campaign about risks of cell phones and cordless telephony, in no later than six months.

A joint press release from the ministries accepted the decision and asked state departments to issue correct guidance for the use of mobile phones and to promote preventative measures.

Italian judges take a more prudential approach to the 5G roll-out. Italy is the European country where three judgments have ruled on a correlation between mobile phone use and brain tumours. The last verdict came from the Court of Ivrea, which, in 2017, asked Inail – the National Institute for Insurance Against Workplace Accidents – to pay a lifetime allowance to a telecoms employee who had to spend between three to four hours daily on their mobile phone.

“The aim, as for the battle against the multinationals of tobacco, is to attack the phone manufacturers [and] distributors,” says lawyer Stefano Bertone, who won the Ivrea case. “But we must advance step by step. Public opinion is still in favour of smartphones, of digital applications.”

After the Inail case, Bertone and consumer advocacy group, the Association for the Prevention and Fight Against Electrosmog Radiation (APPLE) criticised four ministries (health, environment, education and economic development) for not correctly informing Italians about the risks of electromagnetic fields, as was requested by legislation passed in 2001. “In a little while, we will be ready to attack the industry and, like tobacco, we will bring to court all producers together.”

Italian biologist and professor Angelo Levis, president of APPLE, says: “At this moment, when the precautionary principle seems to have disappeared, judges are using it more and more, giving the example to politicians and showing them the path to follow for electromagnetic radiation.”

France and Spain have had one court case each, and ruled in favour of individuals claiming electro-hypersensitivity.

In 2012, dozens of people filed for a class action against telecoms on brain cancer started in before the District of Columbia Superior Court in the US. They accuse telecoms firms and device makers such as Nokia, Motorola and Samsung of not doing enough to warn them of the health risks based on the scientific knowledge that was already available at the time.

The plaintiffs or their relatives allege that they are victims of brain cancer and claim this is linked to EMF radiation emitted by the devices.

Six years after the first hearing, the court case is still going on with the two parties fighting before the court about the scientific literature that will be admitted as evidence. In between, the judge has changed. The case is now the subject of a documentary, titled Thank you for calling, by German film-maker Klaus Scheidsteger.

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