Are 5G cellular networks safe … or are they dangerous to humans, animals, and the environment?

5G radiation cellular tower

There’s a lot of concerns about 5G cellular towers. We’ve all seen the pictures of dead birds and the wild theories about 5G cellular signals being related to COVID-19.

There are so many worries about 5G that there are now snake oil products to protect you from 5G … which turned out to just be USB sticks.

In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier we’re going to get the facts by talking to a scientist in Belgium: Professor Wout Joseph, who leads a research group at the University of Ghent.

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And full transcript: Are 5G cellular networks safe?

John Koetsier: Is 5G safe or is it dangerous to humans, animals and the environment?

Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.

There’s a lot of concerns out there about 5G. We’ve all seen the pictures of the 5G cell towers and dead birds around them. A lot of people worrying about the radiation from 5G and there’s some snake oil products out there to protect you as well. I wrote on one of them just recently, a USB stick that’s supposed to protect you from 5G radiation.

Well, we’re going to get the facts. We’re going to talk to a scientist in Belgium. His name is Professor Wout Joseph, who leads a research group at the University of Ghent. Wout, welcome!

Wout Joseph: Hello. Hi, John.

John Koetsier: Glad to have you here. Tell us, is 5G dangerous?

Wout Joseph: A difficult question already. You cannot know for sure. What we will know is that it will satisfy existing guidelines. So there is the USA IEEE guideline. There is ICNIRP, this is an international guideline. It will have to satisfy heating. What happens on the longterm is just the same as 2G, 3G, 4G, this has to be researched and is in continuous evaluation or research. So, it will have to satisfy current scientific knowledge.

It’s just like Corona, there’s uncertainty. Here in 5G radiation there’s also uncertainty and you have to cope with that. On the longterm we don’t know. On the short term, you know, it’s heating so that will have to satisfy guidelines.

John Koetsier: So talk about the difference between ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation.

Wout Joseph: Yeah, so 5G and all the telecommunication technologies are non-ionizing. I have to be clear about that. That means that bond between atoms and molecules in our body cannot be broken. Just like for ionizing radiation, like x-rays radioactive radiation, that’s ionizing that can break these bonds. Not ionizing, not possible. So that’s why I come back to the heating effects for these technologies.

John Koetsier: So talk about that a little bit more. I mean, because when people hear radiation, they think uranium, they think plutonium, they think maybe x-rays or something like that. But this is, you’re talking about radiation that cannot break the bonds of atoms and molecules. You’re talking about radiation, that heats versus breaks apart. Can you go into some more detail on that? What do you mean?

Wout Joseph: Yeah. Yes, indeed. It simply has not enough energy, meaning it’s radiating at lower frequencies. The frequencies are not high enough, the energy is not high enough to break these bonds.

The effects are for radio-frequency radiation heating, like the easiest example is you put food in your microwave oven, you put it on, it comes out hot. So you get heating. So by your own mobile phone, by the towers, you get heated a bit, very low frequencies, there are other effects that’s neurostimulation, but for telecommunications it’s going to be heating.

John Koetsier: Talk about that a little bit. And you’ve also done some research on the effects of that heating or that non-ionizing radiation when you’re using a 5G device versus somebody else who might be in the room while you’re using a 5G device.

Wout Joseph: That’s a really good question and that’s the big difference between 4G and 5G from exposure perspective. So, in 4G we have the effect of distance to the antenna, so farther from the antenna, lower fields and also the direction. If you’re in the main beam, or in the main direction, you have the main radiation, but for 5G there’s new dimension, the user.

Just like you say, when you’re using, you will attract a beam towards you, a good communication channel in other words, and you will have higher exposure, during a shorter time than before because everything goes faster, and locally. For the non-user, so somebody else in the room, far enough, he or she will have on average lower exposure, because it’s really, communication towards you, towards the user.

And before, with 4G everybody was just exposed, so you were walking around, everybody had the same exposure in that sector you could say, but now you will get your own beam while you’re using. So, non-users on average, lower. While you’re using, this will be a short time a higher field value.

John Koetsier: That’s quite interesting because I mean, one of the concerns that some people who have been concerned about 5G, that they’ve raised, is that we’re putting a lot of radiation out in the environment, whether it’s cellular, whether it’s other forms, radio-frequency that sort of thing, and there are some people who claim a sensitivity to those things. But what you’re saying is that this is disproportionately impacting those who use the technology versus others who are just near, in the background somewhere.

Wout Joseph: Yeah, yeah. The easiest thing to explain to say 4G versus 5G is you will have a certain level for 4G and 5G will be much, much lower, but now and then you will have larger peaks. And that’s when you’re using.

I have to be honest, I’m just talking about the first test, the first simulations, this has to be evaluated and validated. Due to Corona this is now difficult, but after this crisis we’ll be able to measure in commercial networks instead of test sites like up to now.

John Koetsier: So in the testing that you’ve done so far, can you quantify how much radio frequency radiation you’re getting exposed to when you’re using 5G?

Wout Joseph: That’s a difficult one. I have to say, commercially, we don’t know yet. This has to be evaluated, but from test sites, to give you a number around five, six volts per meter. Doesn’t say much, but that’s while you’re using it, for instance, continuously 100% streaming towards you. So that’s not possible in practice, but that’s kind of maximum.

When you’re a non-user it goes to zero to three volts per meter. So a much lower value and the values are, yeah, the mobile operators will have to satisfy the international guidelines. So like these limits are around 60 volts per meter, for instance. So, it’s while you’re using, and it really depends on what you do. Do you have a video call like we have now? You’ll have more exposure than just surfing on the internet. Or when you do nothing, you have even even less.

John Koetsier: Yes. So you said, what was that number that you gave? Was it seven volts?

Wout Joseph: Six, typically six volts per meter from several sites, but this was quite close to the site, and less than a hundred meters from the site, from the base station. And it’s not a number to focus on really, because I cannot give you the numbers in a commercial network. This has to come later, but from tests and worst case conditions, really.

John Koetsier: And so, quantify that for us a little bit, because honestly that means almost nothing to me. And that’s why you’re probably downplaying that number a little bit as well. Seven volts per meter. What does that mean? What would be a dangerous level?

Wout Joseph: Dangerous in the sense of reaching the limit for heating? Because some people will say dangerous on the longterm, we cannot say. But then the limits for heating is around 60 volts per meter. For the frequencies I considered, 3.5 GHz bands. So you could say 10x below it, but do not focus too much on that.

The limits are there’s also a safety margin for that, a safety margin of 50. So we have to be careful. It’s not if the limits are exceeded that we have to panic immediately, there is a safety margin to take and it’s called sensitive people, children, special conditions where you can have focusing and so on. So to account for that, you have an additional safety factor in the limits.

John Koetsier: So talk a little bit about 5G and the changes that it brings from 4G, right? I mean, 5G is much lower, a smaller transmission distance, correct? So you’d need many more towers in a given area, is that correct?

Wout Joseph: Most probably you will have that. 5G is also misused as concept. I was explaining massive MIMO, this is a kind of technology, like a base station with hundreds of antennas. In countries now you have just a limited number of antennas. What you have in the States already a lot of tests is at millimeter wave, so much higher frequencies and these need indeed much shorter ranges, but these higher frequencies enable us very high bandwidth and with high bandwidth, huge data rates and then, yeah, really fast transmissions. So video conferences on your mobile like we have now with tens of people is possible.

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. Interesting. We have a comment here from Colin who says he lives on a hill and somebody AT&T wants to put a tower out there on the top of the towers in sight line with his kitchen window and deck. I’m guessing with 5G he has less to be concerned about unless he’s actually using it because he didn’t won’t have a beam directed in his exact location. Is that correct?

Wout Joseph: So that’s a good question. If you live under a tower – and this is not dependent on 5G, it’s also for 2G, 3G, 4G – it will not, even that almost similar radiation. So the radiation direction is really important, it’s not only distance, it’s the direction. And these antennas radiate far in the country, they want to reach other people, not your house. So you’re below the main beam, you will not have radiation or only leakage due to this tower. Then you say to me, ‘I have connection’ that’s from another tower further that you will connect to. So, to have low exposure, you can live under a base station, then you will have the, you’re not in the main beam. It’s short distance, but you’re not in the direction of the main beam of such an antenna.

John Koetsier: Interesting.

Wout Joseph: So an example of panic or be afraid for high exposure, but it’s just a situation of low exposure.

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. Very, very interesting. Okay. So talk about some of the conspiracy theories and your thoughts on why those exist and the rationale behind them, and how we should communicate around those ideas.

Wout Joseph: Yeah. The reason is you cannot see it. You can’t see it, you cannot feel it, and it’s a big uncertainty. We cannot say on the long term, do we get a cancer or not? We cannot say anything about it. There are studies going on to investigate this. And for instance, 5G, you have to investigate over 20 years to get a cancer. So we cannot say now whether we get cancer from 5G.

So big uncertainty and you cannot see it, so people worry about that. And the conspiracy theories is like Corona versus 5G, yeah, there’s no relation at all. There’s no scientific points to have that. I really don’t understand how they come up, except that there’s two new things, 5G this is new and Corona was also new to us.

So and to communicate, best thing you can do is inform people how it works, what it does, and be clear about it. So, like I tried to explain distance from a base station, the direction – so below a base station have lower ideation than a little bit further where you see it – and then user or non-users, just like you mentioned in the beginning,  these are the three parameters which will influence your exposure.

John Koetsier: Well, very, very interesting and do appreciate your insight here. And I mean, it’s an interesting situation, right? Because you do have people who are very concerned, we just talked about that, who were saying, ‘This is dangerous.’ We don’t have data about that, but what you are actually telling me as a researcher into 5G is that we also do not have longterm data that it is safe over decades. Correct?

Wout Joseph: Yes, and all I can say is that you will never be able to say it’s safe. Somebody who says that, that’s not possible. You cannot prove that this technology will always be safe, but that’s with any new technology or wireless technology.  It might be possible that in the future something will be found, but it’s not possible to say it’s not dangerous. I see somebody commenting, but in 20 years research knowledge can be better and we cannot say. The chance, I agree the chance is low, but scientifically you cannot say there will be nothing. Yeah.

John Koetsier: One of the challenges with that of course, is that if you are tending to be on the conspiracy theorist side, or if you tend to be on the maybe fearful of new technology, or maybe you’re sensitive to these things, whatever your health is compromised, you will say, ‘Well, scientists say you cannot be sure that it’s safe.’ Is that a reason to stop 5G networks from being built out? Or is it not.

Wout Joseph: I don’t agree with it to stop that. It’s like having a car like in Belgium, and I think in the States much more, we have 800 deaths per year in car accidents, that’s proven. From 5G, I don’t know about proven deaths up to now. So it’s new technology. It will enable applications like self-driving cars,  industrial communications, robotics and so on, medical robots doing surgery. So yeah, just having a call to 911 to an ambulance it’s also helpful these technologies.

So as a society, you have to agree there are sometimes risks, like having a car is also a risk, but having 5G it can also be a risk, but it will also have a purpose and be helpful for people.

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. Interesting. We do have one comment here. Can 5G clinical trials be conducted to determine guidelines? You talked about that a little bit earlier. Can you talk about that again?

Wout Joseph: Clinical trials, yeah. That type of research is epidemiological research you mean? So you have a group of healthy people and you look at people who are more exposed than others and see whether they develop a cancer or not on the longterm. So that type of research is really important and it’s valuable to find possible cancers or not.

Clinical really is then inviting people over like hypersensitive people you could invite them, and if they want to be exposed or not and see whether they can feel the radiation that happens also, but that’s already more limited groups. And then you have in-vitro research. I think there is the most possible research to find mechanisms, is the less sexy research, it’s exposing cells and see whether something happens with cells, then you can find mechanisms. The research people like most is with humans, of course, and to see if something happens, but it’s really difficult. Find somebody who’s not exposed versus somebody who’s exposed. That’s difficult to find non-exposed people nowadays, yeah, maybe in the rainforest some Indians live there without exposure, but we are exposed by wireless radiation.

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Wout Joseph: So that makes it difficult. But that type of research,like in the scope which some person mentions here is indeed needed for the longterm research.

John Koetsier: Excellent. And if somebody wants to follow your research in more detail, where can they do that?

Wout Joseph:Through IMEC communication channels. So I’m in [?] IMEC or website, and from the Wave group, IMEC Ghent University, and there you find my papers. So I’m an engineer. So I’m the one who develops the measurement procedures, how to measure, how to quantify, and how to measure correctly to say when I say a value that is the correct value. So I’m the person developing these methods to measure it correctly. And for 5G it becomes quite difficult or complicated as the user is there. I have to do, we have to do measurements with user, without user, different circumstances and so on.

John Koetsier: Excellent, excellent. Thank you so much for your time.

Wout Joseph: Thank you, John.

John Koetsier: It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the ride, whatever platform you’re watching on, or listening on, please like, subscribe, share, comment, all the above. If you’re on the podcast later on, please rate it, review it, that’d be a massive help. Thank you so much, until next time, this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.