As the latest wireless communications technology begins to be deployed, should you be concerned about its risk to your health?
The health effects of current wireless communication technology are still being investigated with controversial outcomes showing potentially harmful biological effects and many unknowns. Yet a whole new untested spectrum of electromagnetic waves is about to be unleashed.
5G is the fifth generation of wireless communication, that promises faster data rates, lower latency and greater capacity. This will be achieved with new data encoding methods and the use of new transmission frequencies. 5G frequencies can be broadly divided into below 6 gigahertz (GHz) and above 6 GHz.
Current wireless communication already operates in the below 6 GHz range and its health effects have been extensively studied (known biological effects include, but are not limited to, lower male fertility and potential carcinogenicity[i]).
However, little is known about the health effects of high frequency 5G. High frequency or millimeter wave 5G will operate in the range of 24–86 GHz. Low frequency RF penetrates human tissue up to a couple of centimeters, but millimeter wave RF is absorbed in a few millimeters. So logically one could assume millimeter waves would pose less risk to deeper organs such as the brain. But the downside of shallow penetration is exponentially greater absorption in the first few millimeters of skin.
The preliminary research shows that millimeter waves increase skin temperature, alter gene expression, promote cellular proliferation and synthesis of proteins linked with oxidative stress, inflammatory and metabolic processes, could generate ocular damages, affect neuro-muscular dynamics[ii].
5G networks have been approved by the FCC in the US and are already deployed in multiple cities. The first 5G handsets will be available in 2019 and a proliferation of 5G devices powering the massively interconnected Internet of Things (IoT) is expected. The short transmission distance of high frequency 5G will require a much denser network of cell towers and the explosion in the number of transmitted devices will result in a significant increase in exposure to RF.
With the current uncertainty and lack of scientific knowledge, especially in the millimeter wave range, some scientists and public health experts worry we are hastily unleashing an untested technology without fully understanding the health effects.