India is ready to transition from 4G to 5G connectivity, but concerns of health risks around the technology persist. One of the biggest worries flagged in Europe is that exposure to some of the frequencies used for 5G technology could possibly lead to cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently conducting a health risk assessment which should be out by the end of this year. India’s telcos are also planning to rollout the 5G technology later in 2022: There’s a chance the rollout of the technology and the health risk assessment report might come around the same time.
The WHO started conducting a health risk assessment from exposure to radiofrequencies, covering the entire radiofrequency range, including 5G, in 2020. It is reviewing scientific evidence related to potential health risks from 5G exposure as the new technology gets deployed around the world and more public health-related data becomes available.
Cancer, fertility risks
Globally, there have been concerns over the adverse impact of the 5G technology on human health. In 2021, the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology of the European Parliamentary Research Service that studied the health impact of 5G concluded that frequencies of 450 to 6000 MHz EMF are probably carcinogenic for humans, in particular related to gliomas and acoustic neuromas. “These frequencies clearly affect male fertility and possibly female fertility too. They may have possible adverse effects on the development of embryos, foetuses and new-born,” the panel said.
Even though the technology offers several benefits, public health experts and environmentalists have been up against the launch of the technology warning the government about its health hazards.
“Though specific 5G cause-effect studies are being carried out by European agencies, a commercial launch and propagation thereof, must not be undertaken until all evidences hold 5G to be 100% safe,” says Akash Vashishtha, an environment lawyer.
The WHO says on date with the current research studies available, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies, but there are very few studies done on 5G.
“Tissue heating is the main mechanism of interaction between radiofrequency fields and the human body. Radiofrequency exposure levels from current technologies result in negligible temperature rise in the human body,” says the WHO.
“As the frequency increases, there is less penetration into the body tissues and absorption of the energy becomes more confined to the surface of the body (skin and eye). Provided that the overall exposure remains below international guidelines, no consequences for public health are anticipated,” the public health body adds.
So, should we in India be worried?
Yes, and the parliament is aware. In March 2022, the standing committee on information technology (2020-21) on India’s preparedness for 5G, chaired by Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor, in its 21st report said that it has felt that 5G technology is still in a nascent stage and the real dangers of radiation for health will become clearer only when its application becomes all pervasive.
The Committee had recommended the Department not only to rely on the reports of WHO but to keep their eyes and ears open to other studies and scientific researches that emerge from time to time on health hazards from 5G radiation. The Committee had also recommended that the Department should collaborate with other Ministries and Institutes for a long- term India-specific research to study the impact of Electric and magnetic fields (EMF) from mobile towers and propose adequate budgetary allocation for this purpose.
There is a genuine concern about the impact of 5G on health. Till date, many studies have been conducted on impact of radio frequencies above 6 GHz on human health. This is a frequency which is used by 5G networks. There are concerns about it hitting the skin surface, penetration of radiation below the skin, possible carcinogenicity, impact on the cognitive function as well as the reproductive function,” says Dr Praveen Gupta, Principal Director & Head, Department of Neurology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram.
“However, currently the available studies on impact of 6Ghz and above radiation on human health have only given inconsistent results. So, there is no convincing data at this point of time that despite theoretical risks, it actually predisposes to a concrete risk to human health as of now. However, such a large-scale deployment of this frequency has not been tested earlier and over next decade or so, we would be able to clearly understand the health risks of 5G roll out,” he adds.