Last April, scientists published the first assessment of a commercial 5G network’s emissions of electromagnetic radiation (EMR).1 5G is the fifth generation of mobile phone networks. Swisscom deployed Europe’s first nation-wide network, covering 96% of the Swiss population with 5G. Of course, around the world, deployment of 5G is also well underway. 5G’s rollout raises many questions: How will it transform peoples’ daily lives and businesses? What kind of extractions and how much energy will it demand over the next decade? How will its emissions of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) affect public and wildlife health?
I considered these questions in previous articles. In light of this new report—and more electro-smog—I feel compelled to address them again. I must admit: making light reading of this subject is a challenge.
What is special about 5G radiation?
While antennas from previous generations of mobile networks (1G-2G-3G-4G) typically emit electromagnetic radiation in all directions, most 5G antennas beam EMR in specific directions. This technique is called “beamforming.”2 It allows antennas to transfer lots of data more efficiently.
“Signal” beams repetitively scan the area nearby to locate potential 5G users. “Channel” beams allow mobile users speedy transfer of data (videos, virtual reality, apps) from the Cloud to their mobile device.
In the future, some 5G networks will use millimetre waves (mmW) for extremely high speeds of data transfer. But these very short waves cannot travel very far; and they are absorbed by tree leaves, skin and rain. Therefore, 5G “small cell” antennas need be installed about every three to ten houses on utility poles and under manhole covers, etc.
What is electro-smog?
In a previous article, I reported on the harmful biological effects of electro-smog on wildlife. In the 2010s, telecom equipment already emitted microwave radiation 1018 times (1 followed by 18 zeros) levels found in nature.
To date, future EMR exposure limits in Brussels relied on the 2018 report by the Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications (BIPT). It proposed that exposure limits in Brussels should more than double (x 6) and, eventually, should be multiplied by 50 in order to enable efficient deployment of 5G.
While Belgian legislators use BIPT’s report to push for much higher EMR-exposure limits in Brussels, the first 5G field measurements made in Switzerland show that such an increase is not necessary.
What does the Swiss network have to say?
I understand that the telecommunications industry aims to meet the technology’s engineering needs and economical goals. Meanwhile, it proposes EMR exposure limits that allegedly protect our environment. BIPT’s report about 5G’s emissions had prepared me for the worst. I expected 5G to increase our exposure to microwave radiation significantly. When I learned that Swiss radiation levels are not that high, I felt relief. But I also felt mistrust: the BIPT report had claimed that regulatory limits regarding the public’s EMR exposure from 5G must be lifted. This new report did not even suggest higher limits. What had changed?
Since new EMR exposure limits have not yet been voted on in Brussels, I felt hopeful that I could present legislators with scientific facts about 5G before they rewrite regulations.
According to engineers at Belgium’s University of Ghent, the introduction of 5G in Bern did not significantly raise peoples’ exposure to microwave radiation. The engineers even simulated potential EMR exposure in the event that the entire network emitted at full power. There again, no alarms were raised.3 In fact, levels remained over 100 times lower than the recommendations by ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection).
But beware: this 2021 report from Switzerland reveals a slick, reassuring posture about EMR exposure’s risks to public health and the environment.
Why does the report miss the problem?
Let’s go back to ICNIRP, the “decider” when it comes to making international guidelines about “safe” radiation emissions. 5G’s emissions measure far below ICNIRP’s recommendations. However, ICNIRP only recognizes EMR exposure’s harm if it significantly heats tissue within a few minutes. These are called “thermal effects.” ICNIRP’s guidelines do not recognize EMR exposure’s non-thermal effects, which thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies associate with cancer, sleep disturbances, cognitive difficulties, DNA damage, cellular damage, impaired fertility and much, much more.
ICNIRP is a small private German organisation recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO). An extensive 2020 report by two Members of the European Parliament accused ICNIRP of conflicts of interest. Over ten years ago, the Council of Europe asserted that ICNIRP’s standards on exposure to electromagnetic fields “have serious limitations,” and petitioned the Commission to reconsider its standards. So far, the Council has not received a response.
Indeed, scientists have reported adverse biological effects to EMR exposure at levels one million times below ICNIRP’s standards. For more information, the Bioiniative report provides a good starting point. Bioinitiative’s scientists recommend limiting EMR exposure levels to three million times lower than those recommended by ICNIRP.4 As for EMR exposure’s impacts on wildlife, a 2021 report5 states that “Broad wildlife effects have been seen on orientation and migration, food finding, reproduction, mating, nest and den building, territorial maintenance and defense, and longevity and survivorship.”
Why are biologists more concerned than engineers?
I am not a biologist. I am an engineer. For two years, I have collaborated with independent physicians, scientists, engineers and writers who have identified that non-thermal levels of electro-smog cause measurable harm on the health of humans, animals, plants and insects.
In 2020, the European Parliament Research Service (EPRS) published “Effects of 5G wireless communication on human health.” This paper is based on a 2019 study by Dimitris Panagopoulos, “Comparing DNA damage induced by mobile telephony and other types of man-made electromagnetic fields,” which reports: “The mobile telephony electromagnetic fields (MT EMFs) were significantly more bioactive even for much shorter exposure durations than the other EMFs. Moreover, they were more damaging than previously tested cytotoxic agents like certain chemicals, starvation, dehydration. (…) The crucial parameter for the intense bioactivity seems to be the extreme variability of the polarized MT signals, mainly due to the large unpredictable intensity changes.”
While engineers measure the average intensity of radiation over several minutes and its thermal (heating) effects, biologists focus on the variability of radiation’s intensity, its polarization—and the effects of long-term, cumulative and combined EMR exposure.
Three 5G characteristics can cause variability in intensity and significantly impact living creatures: First, modulation6 of the signal causes peaks (crests) in the intensity of the radiation (like AM —Amplitude Modulation radio). 5G uses the same type of modulation as 4G, so modulation is not a new concern with 5G. Even if 5G’s average signal intensity is lower, as recent measures in Switzerland suggest, modulation can still impact people and wildlife.
Second, antennas can enter energy-saving “sleep mode” and stop emitting for very short periods. Compared to 4G, 5G sleep modes have improved to reduce energy use even further. As far as I know, the biological impacts of these new frequencies of pulses caused by on/off switching have not been studied.
Third, even when there is no data transfer, signal beams (explained above) from the antenna emit at regular intervals in all directions. Already with 4G, control signals pulse radiation, especially when there is no data traffic.7 5G’s signal beams are new. As far as I know, health risks that might result from exposure to pulsing signal beams have not been evaluated.
Short-sighted viewers in the electro-smog
While 5G technology is deployed worldwide, ICNIRP’s lack of concern for non-thermal biological effects over decades demonstrates arrogance and incompetence. The potential harmful effects of radiation from mobile networks cannot be reduced by engineers to frequency and average intensity. To evaluate and mitigate EMR exposure’s impacts to health and wildlife, we need comprehensive scientific study with due diligence, humility and caution. We need signed reports from professional engineers who hold liability that 5G’s hazards have been evaluated and mitigated before any more new equipment is commercially used.
The new 5G radiation measurements in Switzerland failed to justify revising exposure limits for 5G networks. The commercial 5G network shows exposure of no more than 1.33 volt-per-metre8 (V/m) in the worst-case outdoor location. Even beyond stricter Swiss regulations, 5G antennas would, at their maximum power, combined with 2-3-4G, expose the environment to 5 V/m. Five volt-per-meter (eventually expected from 5G antennas) is an alarming level of radiation for living creatures. It’s 600 times the Council of Europe’s recommendation, and 20,000 times greater than the Bioinitiative’s.
Here, I must ask: why do some governments—including my own, in Brussels—insist on raising radiation emission limits even more (to 22 V/m and eventually ICNIRP’s 61 V/m)? What would this new level of freedom granted to mobile operators mean for the environment and the public? How will billions of new Internet-of-Things wireless devices increase our environment’s radiation levels? How do we assess the collateral costs of long-term EMR exposure from multiple sources on large populations? Who will pay for damages?
All figures (from 1.33 to 61 V/m) in this article fall below ICNIRP/WHO recommendations dating from 1998 with no revision! Yet under the WHO’s radar lurks a wide spectrum of risks to public health that should not be taken lightly. I urge policymakers to protect the public from invisible yet ever-thickening electro-smog.
1 S. Aerts, K. Deprez, M. Van den Bossche, D. Colombi, L. Verloock, L. Martens, C. Törnevik, W. Joseph, “In-Situ Assessment of 5G NR Massive MIMO Base Station Exposure in a Commercial Network in Bern, Switzerland”, Applied Sciences, April 2021.
2 Beamforming: uses antennas called “massive MIMO:” a massive number (tens to hundreds) of multiple-input multiple-output antennas that work together to beam radiation in one specific direction. Beamforming comes with several benefits. It significantly improves the energy efficiency of the network, thus allowing more data transfers using the same amount of energy. Beamforming also unleashes a more efficient usage of the electromagnetic spectrum by sending beams simultaneously in different directions using the same frequency. However, I could never stress enough that energy efficiency will lead to unbridled electricity consumption, a phenomenon called the “rebound effect” or “Jevons paradox.”
3 Ibid., see also article (in Dutch) with more details.
Max average exposure levels measured (over 30 seconds) in Bern:
Antenna power of max 8.1 W : (measured)
– 0.6 V/m8 at 3.6 GHz (1.3 V/m for all mobile frequencies)
Antenna power of 200 W : (calculated)
– 4.9 V/m at 3.6 GHz (about 5 V/m for all mobile frequencies).
4 At the frequency used by 5G (3.5 GHz), ICNIRP (1998) recommends 10 W/m2 (watts per square metre) of power density (or 61 V/m), while Bioinitiative (2012) recommends 0,000003 W/m2 (or 0,035 V/m). This is a ratio of 3 million. The Council of Europe (2011) recommends 0,0001 W/m2 (or 0,2 V/m) and the application of the ALARA principle: As Low As Reasonably Achievable.
5 Blake Levitt, Henry Lai, Albert Manville, Effects of non-ionizing electromagnetic fields on flora and fauna, part 1. Rising ambient EMF levels in the environment, May 2021.
6 Modulation: telecommunications technologies make it possible to transmit a signal at a distance. This signal is encoded on the electromagnetic wave called “carrier”, thanks to the modulation of the carrier. Modulation is the change in the characteristics of the wave (intensity, frequency, phase) over time. The result of the 5G (OFDM type) modulation is a modulated signal with peaks of power.
7 The Scientific Institute of Public Service ISSeP (§3.2.11) in Wallonia (Belgium) points out that LTE (4G) control signals generate pulsations when there is no data traffic.
8 The V/m or “volt per meter” is the unit of measurement for the strength of the electric field around the antenna at a given location; W/m2 or “watt per square meter” is the unit of measurement of the power density which is useful for comparing powers absorbed by living things. The conversion between the two units is as follows: power density (W/m2) = intensity2 (V/m) / 377.262Shares
Miguel Coma – an engineer in telecommunications and an Information Technology architect. After over two decades of professional activity in various industries, he began to write, speak and consult about our digital environmental footprint. He believes in peoples’ potential to use technology wisely and create sustainable progress.