The current COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a controversial debate around whether radio frequencies such as the latest 5G communication band can be connected to human illness or disease. Most of the claims made online stems from the fact that radio waves are technically radiation. Radiation is more often than not viewed in a negative light without realising that not all radiation is bad and that a distinction should be drawn between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Two of the most prevalent questions are: Can viruses be transmitted through electromagnetic energy and can electromagnetic energy transmitted at these frequencies penetrate the human body or alter it in any significant way? In this article, we consider the 5G phenomenon as well as, to our current knowledge, the effect of 5G signals on the human body.
5G is the next generation of mobile broadband that will ultimately either complement or replace the 4G LTE connection. 5G brings with it rapidly faster download and upload speeds. Furthermore, the time it takes devices to communicate with wireless networks, in other words, the latency, will also drastically decrease. When considering the basics of radiation, it is necessary to point out that current mobile and Wi-Fi networks rely on microwaves – a type of electromagnetic radiation that uses frequencies of up to 6 GHz to wirelessly transmit voice and data. The general frequency ranges are:
2G frequency range: 900MHz and 1.800GHz (predominantly 900Mhz)
3G frequency range: 850MHz, 1.8-2.5Ghz
4G frequency range: 850MHz, 2-8 GHz (predominantly 1.800GHz)
5G frequency range: 600MHz to 6GHz and 24-86GHz
2G to 4G is, however, increasingly making room for new 5G applications that most commonly uses frequencies in the mid-band frequency range of the specification between 2.4 and 4.2GHz but can operate at frequencies up to 86GHz. These are common frequencies which have been used in various applications.
2. Ionizing vs non-ionizing radiation
Electromagnetic radiation is air-transmitted energy such as television signals, cell phone signals, visible light (including radiation from sunlight) and x-rays. Electromagnetic radiation can be divided into two categories namely ionizing and non-ionizing radiation
Non-ionizing radiation is radiation that does not alter or damage cell structures. In other words, it cannot ionize atoms, and the main effect of the energy transmitted at these frequencies on human cells is the heating of tissue, similar to the heating of food in a microwave oven. Some common types of non-ionizing radiation include heat, radio waves, visible light, and microwaves.
Ionizing radiation is radiation at much higher frequencies (such as ultra-violet light, x-rays and cosmic rays) that can damage and change cell structures as it can ionize atoms and therefore possibly cause defects such as cancer. These frequency bands, which are much higher than the 5G bands, are strictly regulated. Think of how careful one must be when getting X-rays taken at a hospital, or the rules prohibiting commercial flight crews from flying over polar regions too often where our atmosphere provides less protection from ionizing solar rays. 5G frequencies are substantially lower than ionising frequency bands and fall within the (safe) radio wave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Therefore, the only concern is a physical rise in temperature of human tissue. However, in respect of the latter, it should be noted that the human skin is designed to regulate temperature increases through insulation, sweating, and blood flow control. It is also important to note that skin tissue can function normally within a range of temperatures. Most people feel very comfortable with their skin being slightly heated by the sun, or when their skin is heated by warm water for example.
3. Human body penetration depth of power transmitted at frequencies used for 5G technology
Higher frequency signals such as typical mid-band 5G frequency signals have much higher losses when the signal is being transmitted through typical buildings and structures. Similarly, the electromagnetic power transmitted at these frequencies dissipates quickly when entering water or human tissue. Furthermore, electromagnetic power penetrating the human body decreases rapidly, as it enters the body with most of the electromagnetic power being absorbed within the first layers of tissue (i.e. the skin). The penetration depth into human tissue of high-frequency energy decreases rapidly with the increase of frequency.
Many factors affect the penetration depth of electromagnetic energy into human skin such as the frequency, angle of radiation, power transmitted, type of tissue being radiated to name but a few. It should be noted that the human skin is about 2 mm thick on average but can vary between 4 mm and 0.5mm depending on someone’s age and area on the body. Eyelids are typically 0.5mm thick. Ample research has been conducted in this particular field which demonstrates that the average depth of penetration into human tissue is generally accepted to be less than 5mm around the 2.5 GHz frequency band and less than 0.2 mm at 10 GHz when applying low power at acceptable ICNIRP power levels. Power transmitted at typical 5G technology frequencies rarely penetrates deeper than the human skin.
Two further claims that are often made with regard to 5G technology are that it suppresses the human immune system rendering people more prone to catch viruses or, closely related, that 5G technology, in fact, transmits viruses. According to Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, “the idea that 5G lowers your immune system doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Radio waves can disrupt your physiology as they heat you up, meaning your immune system can’t function. But [the energy levels from] 5G radio waves are tiny and they are nowhere near strong enough to affect the immune system. There have been lots of studies on this.”
We conclude with the words of John Giusti, GSMA’s Chief Regulatory Officer, “twenty years of research should reassure people there are no established health risks from their mobile devices or 5G antennas.
Electromagnetic energy transmitted at the frequencies used for 5G technology at accepted power levels (typically used in mobile communication technology) does not penetrate the human body deeper than skin level. And, since the skin is designed to regulate temperature, the main concern for frequencies within this frequency range is the heating of tissue. Accordingly, 5G technology as discussed in this article, should not pose any significant danger to people. It should furthermore be noted that radio waves and viruses are not transmitted in the same way. For example, the novel coronavirus spreads from one person to another through tiny droplets of saliva when the infected person coughs, sneezes, or breathes. The only radio-wave transmitted viruses are the ones that affect computers, not humans. We are, therefore, of the view that the perceived concerns about 5G are merely the latest iteration of decades of headlines warning of the dangers of electromagnetic radiation.