Do 5G Promises Come with Real Human Costs?

Essay, Disruption, Karen Selick

As a science and technology aficionado who believes in using science to promote human health and prosperity, I was startled to find myself being classified as a Luddite in a recent commentary by authored by a Frontier Center research associate. The commentary was entitled “Luddites Stand in the Way of 5G Prosperity: Fears Overblown, Ignore Benefits of Communications Connectivity” and was released on July 29, 2020.

The one thing I can agree with in that commentary is that faster communications would provide many benefits to humankind. However, choices have to be made about how to deliver faster communications to households, offices, farms, and manufacturing buildings. Not all choices are good ones. And you can’t do a proper cost/benefit analysis without thoroughly exploring all of the costs. 

The expression “5G” refers to the fifth generation of wireless technology, which will carry more data, at higher speeds, than previous cellular networks. But wireless 5G is not the only game in town when it comes to delivering high-speed internet. It faces stiff competition from fibre optic systems. 

Fibre optic cables consist of extremely thin interior strands of glass or plastic which carry signals in the form of light, surrounded by multiple layers of cladding, coating, and jacketing which prevent the light signals from escaping. 

Fibre optic cables are already in use for most of the world’s internet transmissions. This 2010 article estimated that “ninety-nine percent of the Internet’s physical distance has been strung with fiber already.” 

This means there’s a good chance that the street where your home or workplace is located already has fibre optic cable running along its length, even though it may not yet be in use (this is known as “dark fibre”). I’ve been told that’s the case in the municipality where I live. 

The problem stems from what’s called “the last mile”: the distance between the street’s central fibre optic cable and the customer’s wifi router or receiving devices. Until recently, this last mile (which might be only 20 feet in some cases) has ordinarily been wired with coaxial cable or DSL (Digital Subscriber Lines). Such cables transmit data reliably over shielded wires, but the transmission speed is relatively slow compared to fibre optics. 

It’s the last mile that the two competing new technologies propose to speed up. This can be done in two ways: either by replacing the coaxial or DSL cable running from the street to your home with additional fibre optic cable, or by simply beaming signals wirelessly to your devices using antennae referred to as “small cells”. 

Wireless 5G in North America would require the installation of millions of small cellular antennae in order to ensure continuous coverage.1 That’s because the wavelengths they use have a very short range, so antennae have to be placed close together. For indoor use, small cells might need to be located as little as 10 meters apart. Outdoors, small cells have a range varying from 500 meters to 2.5 kilometers.2 Some neighbourhoods might end up with small cells located on almost every telephone pole. 

Different companies use different frequency bands for their 5G, but the most important thing to note is that none of the wireless 5G technologies have undergone any safety testing whatsoever with respect to the impact of these waves on human health. None. This was admitted by industry representatives at a U.S. Senate hearing held on February 7, 2019, an excerpt of which can be seen in this YouTube video

Yes, there are government guidelines for electromagnetic energy. Here in Canada, they’re called Safety Code 6. Critics such as Canadians for Safe Technology (“C4ST”) allege that the code is severely obsolete.3 It was created by Health Canada in the 1970s (long before the development of smartphones) to evaluate the technology existing at that time. It has not had any major revisions made to it in the last 30 years—but it has nevertheless has been extended to constitute the guidelines for a host of later-developed technologies including smartphones and cell phone antennae. Health Canada is apparently content to let it serve as the safety guideline for the untested 5G wireless radiation.  

An international appeal signed by 398 scientists and doctors has recommended a moratorium on the roll-out of wireless 5G. They say new scientific evidence demonstrates that living organisms (both plants and animals) are adversely affected by EMFs (that is, existing electromagnetic frequencies emitted by 2G, 3G, and 4G technologies—let alone 5G) at levels well below current national and international guidelines. The problem would simply be exacerbated by 5G. The National Toxicology Program in the U.S. has published a study showing “a statistically significant increase in the incidence of brain and heart cancer in animals exposed to EMF below the… guidelines followed by most countries.”

The Bioinitiative Report (published in 2012 and recently updated to cover the period up to 2020) was authored by 29 people from 10 countries. Among them, they held 10 medical degrees (MD), 21 PhDs, and a few other degrees. This group doesn’t seem to fit the description of Luddites. Among the health problems they identified from EMFs, as indicated in scientific studies, are: 

  • Increased oxidative stress and free radical production (associated with numerous conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, heart disease, arthritis and diabetes—all of which have increased dramatically since the 1990s);
  • Neurological effects (changes in memory, learning or perception);
  • Disrupted immune function (an especially important problem in these days of COVID-19).

 Dr. Martin Pall, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Basic Medical Sciences at Washington State University. He has studied extensively the biological effects of electromagnetic fields, and summarized his findings in a letter to California legislators three years ago. His list of 14 different adverse health effects include life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias, lower sperm counts, cataract formation, and sleep disruption. 

In short, it is absurd to dismiss the health concerns about EMFs that have been brought forward by hundreds of scientists as the grumpy rumblings of Luddites who just can’t get their heads around the potential benefits of science. 

Opponents of 5G have additional concerns besides human health. They point to studies showing adverse effects of EMFs on plants, insects, and animals. Even the microbes in our soil and in our intestines might be affected. The importance of healthy microbes to human health is only just beginning to be understood. Of particular concern is the possibility that insect pollinators such as bees and butterflies might be prevented from performing their crucial function of ensuring that the world has enough to eat. 

Many 5G critics are concerned about possible data leaks, especially to China, the home country of Huawei, a major manufacturer of wireless 5G technology. 

According to C4ST, the competing fibre optic technology can provide even faster connectivity speeds than wireless 5G, without emitting radiation. These cables are also less vulnerable to natural disaster or attack, and more protective of privacy. It may cost more to run fibre optics across the last mile to individual homes than it would to install a street’s worth of 5G small cells, but that’s a cost that can be borne by the individual who purchases the technological upgrade. 

And this raises the problem that should be of concern to all economists. The installation of 5G is not—unlike the installation of fibre optics—a private concern. Once the small cells start broadcasting, their radiation impacts everyone within range, whether they are 5G customers are not. In economists’ terminology, 5G imposes negative externalities on people who just happen to live in or meander through the territory where 5G customers and their suppliers are causing radiation to be emitted.  

In a densely populated city, your neighbour may want 5G while you don’t. The result may be that a small cell sits on a telephone pole 20 feet away from your bedroom window and bathes you in unwanted electromagnetic radiation all night. 

Ms. Gomez’s article placed speculative values on the anticipated benefits of wireless 5G, but dismissed as “unsupported” any claims of harm. Consequently, her cost/benefit analysis of 5G failed to take into account the following possible costs: 

  • Health care costs of treating individuals who might be adversely affected by wireless 5G;
  • Lost productivity of individuals who might be rendered unable to work due to 5G;
  • The loss of crops that might ensue if insect pollinators or important soil microbes are killed off or incapacitated.

There is also one certain, non-speculative cost that she has failed to take into account: namely, the cost of protective gear that many people are already acquiring to protect themselves from 5G as it expands relentlessly into Canada. Since becoming aware of the adverse impacts of earlier generations of EMFs, I myself have purchased a device that I hope will reduce the impact of EMFs, and I’m investigating other devices to shield my windows, my bed, and my work area in case 5G comes to my town. New companies in this field are springing up all over the place, selling everything from metallic-lined clothing to pendants to Faraday cages for your bedroom. 

At common law, the case of Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) established that a person is liable for damages if he allows something harmful to escape from his land onto neighbouring property. Here’s the most famous passage from the British House of Lords: 

If a person brings, or accumulates, on his land anything which, if it should escape, may cause damage to his neighbour, he does so at his peril. If it does escape, and cause damage, he is responsible, however careful he may have been, and whatever precautions he may have taken to prevent the damage.

It has not yet been tested whether a court would apply this rule to 5G electromagnetic waves (or even 4G, for that matter) but a UK group called Action Against 5G has retained a team of lawyers to commence legal proceedings. Like the Canadian group C4ST, the UK group does not oppose technology. Rather, it opposes untested and suspected unsafe technology. It advocates the use of fibre optics instead of wireless 5G to achieve speedier communications. 

Likewise, a group called Stop5GNetherlands applied for an injunction on February 25, 2020 to invoke an emergency procedure to stop the installation of 5G in the Netherlands. 

In the US, the Children’s Health Defense organization headed up by lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is suing the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) for refusing to update its safety guidelines which (like Canada’s) are more than 25 years old. 

In 2019, an appellate court in Turin, Italy confirmed the trial court’s decision that the plaintiff’s acoustic neuroma (a tumor affecting the inner ear) was caused by the use of his mobile phone. 

The city of Brussels and several parts of Switzerland have proactively imposed moratoriums on the rollout of 5G. Many other municipalities around the world have followed suit, or are considering doing so. Even some entire countries are on the list of places where 5G moratoriums are under consideration. 

It would be the height of folly to close our eyes to the risks of wireless 5G when a huge percentage of our population is already suffering from chronic illnesses that have become increasingly more commonplace with every new generation of EMFs already deployed. I hope more Canadians will wake up to the risks and join with concerned individuals around the world to prevent this untested and probably harmful technology from being inflicted upon non-consenting victims. 

 

Karen Selick is a senior research associate with Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and the owner of Keen Eyes Editing. Karen Selick received her law degree at the University of Toronto and spent 7 years as in-house counsel at CIBC, then 24 years in private practice until 2009. Karen went on to serve as Litigation Director for the Canadian Constitution Foundation until 2015. She has written widely about legal issues from a libertarian perspective. She has been a columnist for The Lawyers Weekly and Canadian Lawyer magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Readers’ Digest, The Freeman, and many other newspapers and magazines. 

 

Notes:

  1. David Zarnett, in this recent article for Macleans magazine, says 273,000 small cells will probably have to be installed for Canada alone. The US has nine times the population, so they might well need over 2,457,000 antennae.
  2. What are small cells in 5G technology, https://www.rfpage.com/what-are-small-cells-in-5g-technology/ accessed 18 August 2020. 
  3. See, for instance, this page from C4ST (a volunteer organization founded by Frank Clegg, the retired former president of Microsoft Canada): http://c4st.org/safety-code-6/.