The Health Risks of 5G vs. UV Rays From the Sun
The introduction of 5G wireless communication will improve device speeds by 10 to 100 times compared to 4G. This speed could facilitate self-driving vehicles or virtual reality advancements. However, the topic has been largely controversial due to uncertainties regarding its health implications. Some news outlets and online reports claim that 5G is a stronger form of radiation than what we currently have and suggest it may cause cancer.
Is there any truth to these claims or are they merely conspiracy theories? In this article, we will attempt to answer this question with peer-reviewed scientific research.
What is 5G?
5G simply means the fifth generation in mobile phone technology. It does not refer to any physical quantity. This is the first thing that many people get wrong. A higher number does not mean higher intensity or higher damage. The “5” in 5G is not a measurement at all.
Telecommunications transmit and receive radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF EMFs) in patterns that enable communication. The major differences between 5G and previous generations is that 5G tends to use shorter wavelength EM waves (high frequencies), which some people have linked to greater penetration and damage to the human body.
However, it is actually quite the opposite. 5G’s high frequency electromagnetic waves actually penetrate to a shallower depth in the body. According to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency and the Swinburne University of Technology, the current 4G, radio, wi-fi and 5G waves are capable of penetrating the skin, but it is planned that the future 5G waves will not be absorbed past the skin.
Skin depth for mm-waves. Source: Australian Centre for Electromagnetic Bioeffects Research
5G? Health Effects of 5G on the Human Body
Most health concerns about 5G revolve around cancer. It has been well established that ionizing radiation such as X-rays or the ultraviolet light from the sun (UV rays) can cause cancer. Does the radiation from 5G frequencies or other telecommunications similarly cause cancer?
According to the IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to humans, the radiation emitted by mobile communication is not sufficiency energetic, by several orders of magnitude, to cause similar macromolecule damage within cells.
As can be seen from the spectrum below, radiofrequencies fall within the non-ionising range. This means that they are not capable of removing an electron from an atom or molecule.
Electromagnetic spectrum divided into ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Source: Non-ionizing radiation
Apart from cancer, are there any other physiological responses to radio frequencies?
According to the International Commission on Non-ionizing radiation (ICNIRP), the main effect of EMFs on the human body is a small rise in temperature. However, the magnitude of this change is very small and no more noticeable than what happens during exercise.
Before 2016, the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR), International Agency for Research on Cancer and SSM’s Scientific Council on Electromagnetic Fields concluded that low level radiofrequency exposure did not cause remarkable symptoms, but as with any other research field, further investigations are needed.
A more recent systematic review published in 2019 examined 94 relevant papers, and is arguably the best collections of evidence we have so far (Simkó & Mattsson, 2019). The review found that although some studies suggested biological effects in response to radiofrequency waves, there were very few (if any) independent replication studies that could confirm such effects. In science, replicability and reproducibility are important for establishing the validity of original findings. In this case, such evidence is lacking.
It is also worth noting that there was no evidence of a dose-dependent pattern in which stronger or more frequent health effects were associated with higher exposure levels. Typically, a medication or agent which has a genuine effect on health would display a dose- dependent response.
Furthermore, it important to point out that in vitro exposure studies (test tube studies not performed on a living organism) are far from reality. Such studies will not by any means be related to in vivo exposure studies (studies done on a live animal or human). For instance, putting blood in a microwave oven to study the effects of microwave heating on blood cells and proteins is unrealistically relevant to the health effects of microwaves for food cooking.
For all these reasons, the conclusion of the 2019 review is that there is a huge variability in research quality, which makes it hard to make definitive safety assessments. Nevertheless, due to 5G’s low penetration depth, more research should be directed toward investigating skin responses. It is unlikely that the waves would penetrate deep enough to damage other organs such as the brain. The only established physiological effect is a small temperature increase, which may not be significant to humans. It is possible that even a small temperature change could affect smaller organisms such as insects though.
Do We Know Any Mechanisms?
If we step back and assume that there are indeed detrimental health effects caused by 5G, what cellular and molecular mechanisms could be responsible? One of the only mechanistic studies was published in the Journal of Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis. The researchers tested the ability of mobile phone radiation to induce DNA damage or chromosome damage using two assays. One of the assays reported significantly increased DNA damage, whereas the other one did not. The researchers performed additional histopathological evaluation and found no evidence of inflammation or necrosis.
Apart from this study, a few epidemiological studies suggested an increased risk of brain cancers associated with cell phone use. However, Smith-Roe et al., (2020) pointed out that the odds ratios for such risks are low and mechanistic explanations are lacking.
In stark contrast, extensive research has established how other ionizing radiation waves, such as UV rays, could induce cancer (Hussein 2015). Specifically, high energy waves from the sun can penetrate the skin deeply enough to directly damage the genetic material (DNA) in our skin cells. As a result, mutations accumulate, which could lead to loss of cell cycle control if mutations have occurred in tumour suppressor genes. Ultimately, cell proliferation goes unplanned and results in cancer.
Cosmic rays create ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray radiation which can damage DNA and cause cancer
While it is not our goal to promote either side of the debate, we have found limited evidence which could clearly show any adverse health effects caused by 5G. Associations with physiological changes have been reported, but mechanistic studies are almost completely lacking or ambiguous.
Based on a basic understanding of wave properties, 5G does not emit ionizing radiation, meaning that it does not carry enough energy to damage structures like DNA. To put it into perspective, the UV radiation from the sun on the other hand, does have ionizing abilities which have been mechanistically shown to cause skin cancer.
Having said that, since we are only in the early stages of 5G rollout, it will be years or decades before any subtle or long-term health consequences can be evaluated. Precaution in the meantime may still be beneficial and more research is certainly warranted.
EDIT: Shortly after publishing this article, upon further examination of the evidence, we have come to conclude that non-ionising radiation may actually induce non-thermal effects on biological systems. Further research is needed. For more information, you can read our article on it here.
Author: Yunan Ye. Edited by: Prof. Khalid Matalka, PhD.
Yunan Ye is a Biomedical Scientist from the University of Queensland. She has worked as a researcher at the Queensland Brain Institute and the UQ Centre for Clinical Research (URCCR) in Brisbane.
Professor Khalid Matalka is an immunologist who holds a PhD in cancer therapy from Ohio State University and did a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School. He has over 25 years of research experience, is the associate Editor BMC Cancer and has published over 60 research papers.