Since 2017, several movements appeared worldwide disputing the introduction of the fifth generation of mobile communications systems (5G), claiming for a moratorium until it is clarified whether there are harmful effects for people's health and for the environment. Some extremist anti-5G groups burned telecommunications towers in several countries, while others have developed theories of conspiracy associating (without any scientific support) 5G to COVID-19. In the meantime the World Health Organization (WHO) alerted the public to the false news(1) that were spreading through social networks, explaining that there is no link between 5G and COVID-19, and stressing in particular that the disease has also spread in countries that do not have yet such networks.
Social concerns in relation to 5G are similar to those that existed in the past with regard to previous generations (2G, 3G and 4G), in particular due to the fear that exposure to electromagnetic radiation has adverse health effects.
Many studies on the subject have been carried out within the last decades up to the present, namely epidemiological, in-vitro and with animals, evaluating various potential effects with regard to carcinogenicity and fertility, among other aspects. While several epidemiological studies have obtained mixed results, and therefore not showing any causal association between the use of mobile phones and cancer risk, some animal studies have shown some evidence of carcinogenic effects . This situation may cause concern, but it should be recalled that a fundamental step in the scientific process is the need for repeatability, and the problem of these studies is precisely the lack of repeatability and consistency among them. In the recommendation of 2020(2), the International Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), formally recognized by the WHO, after analysing the most recent studies, considered that there was no consistent and reliable evidence because there are inconsistent results among studies and methodological failures, suggesting additional studies.
Despite the lack of consistent scientific evidence, the feeling of fear regarding 5G seems to have gained more strength than regarding previous generations of mobile communications, probably exacerbated by social networks. It is undeniable that nowadays it is much easier for a misinformed (or ill-intentioned) person to disseminate a partial or distorted analysis of the facts, creating apparently alarmist conclusions for the common citizen.
The question then arises: what is different in 5G compared to previous generations and what argue those who criticize it?
5G can be distinguished from previous generations in many points, but here we focus on the three main aspects that have been pointed by anti-5G movements:
5G critics argue that the use of active antenna technologies known in the technical field as MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) and beamforming technologies will increase exposure to radiation, which is not correct. MIMO consists of the use of antenna arrays (i.e. planar antennas with several elements) in order to take advantage of multiple propagation paths and thus increase data transmission speed, while beamforming consists of using these arrays to concentrate the transmitted power towards the user terminal. Although the power emitted by 5G base stations is similar to the one transmitted by 4G stations, the use of active antennas leads to a dynamic variation of the antenna radiation lobes in time and space according to data traffic requirements and / or with the geographical position of users. This dynamic variation means that radiation is transmitted only in the directions of interest and only during the minimum necessary time, leading in practice to a lower average exposure of about 20 to 30% compared to 4G.
Densification of base stations
The densification of base stations is often mentioned by anti-5G groups, because at first glance it seems intuitive that this densification leads to an increase in exposure to radiation and as such to increased health risks. However, this is another example of a theory developed without correspondence to the reality. In fact, more base stations will be required in 5G due to the fact that some of the used frequency bands are higher than those used in previous generations (at 3.6 GHz in particular), in order to support higher bandwidth communications; as signals in these frequencies suffer higher attenuation with distance, it is necessary to deploy more base stations throughout the territory in order to maintain the same coverage for users. However, let us consider an analogy with street lighting lamps to realize that in a network with a large density of base stations (lamps), each station has to cover (illuminate) a smaller area, and as such its transmitted power (intensity of light) is smaller. On the other hand, in a network composed of few base stations, each station needs to cover a larger area and as such transmit more power, such that the exposure will be higher in its proximity. Therefore, increasing the number of base stations in 5G allows for a reduction of exposure to radiation, as already demonstrated in previous studies; in addition, this increase enables network operators to manage the networks more efficiently with consequent benefits for users: higher bandwidth availability and support for a larger number of simultaneous accesses.
The use of frequency bands higher than in previous generations has been pointed out by those who criticize 5G as a possible health risk factor. In fact, 5G takes advantage of a wider set of frequencies than 4G, more specifically between 700 MHz and 3.6 GHz, while 4G uses frequencies between 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz, therefore 5G uses both upper and lower bands than 4G. In both generations, the upper bands are intended to allow for higher data-rates while the lower ones allow for more extensive network coverage, in particular in rural areas. However, we should remember that nowadays we use widely Wi-Fi networks that operate around the 5.5 GHz band, so the 3.6 GHz band from 5G does not represent anything particularly new to the body of knowledge on the use of different frequencies. Critics also point as concern the use of millimetre waves in 5G (from 28 GHz and upper bands), however, these are not expected to be rolled out anytime soon in Europe, and it is known that these will use very low powers (in small coverage cells), so these will be of low risk in terms of exposure.
In conclusion, there is no evidence of any health risks resulting from exposure to radiation associated with 5G communications networks or even from previous generation networks. In a final note, we should remember that mobile communications represent only one of the sources of electromagnetic radiation, among the several existing sources (such as FM and television broadcast), and therefore the subject of radiation exposure should always be analysed as a whole considering the various sources. We are certain that the scientific community will continue to investigate possible effects on both health and environment, and will be permanently alert and ready to clarify the public.
(1) WHO, false news alert
(2) ICINIRP, 2020 recommendation
1. F. Belpoggi, “Health impact of 5G”, STOA / Panel for the Future of Science and Technology. doi: 10.2861/657478