Current Affairs

Attack of the killer lampposts

As super-fast mobile coverage starts rolling out across the country, the backlash has begun. But the real question is, are these just conspiracy theories or is there something to really be worried about with 5G?

Gateshead Council would like you to know that their lampposts do not cause cancer. Nor can they induce miscarriage, cause nosebleeds or insomnia, or kill off small animals. These are just some of the charges levelled at the unassuming streetlights since 2018, when a man climbed up one and hacked off what he believed was the source of all these evils: a 5G antenna. (Gateshead Council would also like you to know that their street lighting does not use 5G technology).

Newcastle’s techno-warrior is not alone in his campaign against the latest iteration of mobile phone tech. Groups such as Stop5G have sprung up on Facebook, sharing news about global campaigning efforts. In the UK, a petition to halt the roll-out of 5G technology has accumulated over 20,000 signatures. Pressure groups in Brussels have forced city authorities to halt the upgrade to 5G, as have campaigns in Glastonbury and Sligo, Ireland.

All of them claim that 5G technology poses a risk to health. They cite alarming evidence, such as a field test of 5G technology in November 2018 that killed 300 birds in the Netherlands. All of them agree that the roll-out should be halted until the technology is proven safe. So, are they right?

Like other wireless technologies, from telegram to television, 5G works by broadcasting signals in the electromagnetic spectrum. To deliver the kind of high bandwidth data connections demanded by our online world, telecoms companies have developed a new generation of mobile connectivity that promises to be 20 times faster than 4G.

5G uses much higher frequencies than previous mobile phone networks, up to 24GHz, and employs the same sort of radiation used by microwave ovens. And because these signals only travel a short distance compared to 4G, cell towers for 5G networks must be built much closer together to provide unbroken coverage.

In 2011, the World Health Organisation classified the sort of electromagnetic fields used by mobile phones as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ on the advice of its International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). And last year, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHEER) said that a lack of evidence proving 5G is safe left open ‘the possibility of unintended biological consequences’.

Heady stuff, yet not everyone agrees this level of alarm is warranted. The NHS says that the IARC’s classification does not mean there is a clear link between mobile phones and cancer, only ‘a relationship that needs further robust scientific investigation’.  (Also included in the IARC’s ‘possibly carcinogenic’ list: aloe vera, pickled vegetables, and the nickel in 10-pence pieces.)

Cancer Research UK is equally sceptical. The charity notes that between the 1990s and 2016, mobile phone use increased by around 500 per cent, but the incidence  of brain tumours only increased 34 per cent, mainly due to better detection rates. ‘Overall, there’s no convincing evidence that mobile phones, including 5G phones, cause cancer in people,’ says Fiona Osgun, the charity’s Health Information Manager.

While 5G operates in the same frequency as microwave ovens, the same is true of Wi-Fi routers. The power levels involved in wireless data transmission are a fraction of those used in cooking (just try defrosting your chicken korma on your router). And while it’s true that 5G needs a denser network of cell towers than 4G, this also means they run on lower power – like lighting a room with many small bulbs instead of one big floodlight.

So why does 5G inspire such fear? In large part, scare stories about 5G are a retread of previous phobias around new technologies, and they recycle many of the same talking points. The campaign against 5G in Glastonbury follows an identical campaign against a municipal Wi-Fi network in 2008, which was blamed for a similar panoply of health woes, as well as disruption to local ley lines. 

The Facebook group Stop5G, meanwhile, was started by a Dutch UFO investigator named John Kuhles, and is riddled with conspiracy theories that suggest 5G is a weapon intended to sterilise the population or enact mass mind control. It was here that the story of bird deaths due to 5G first emerged – since debunked as a hoax.

On Instagram, some New Age devotees sell tourmaline crystals that promise to shield the wearer from 5G signals, and ‘anti-radiation stickers’ speckled with semi-precious stones to make safe mobile devices. Handy if you want to keep posting 5G alarmism without scrambling your chakras.

Invisible, inscrutable, and inescapable, it’s only natural that electromagnetic fields provoke unease. Radiation is a scary word, though it’s important to note that the type used in wireless connectivity is a far cry from that associated with nuclear power. 5G is an example of ‘non-ionising’ radiation, which carries far too little punch to damage DNA, a key step to causing cancer.

Pressure groups are calling for 5G to be held back until ‘proven safe’, but such a demand is impossible. Nothing can be proven safe beyond doubt, because there’s always the chance that the effects only become apparent in 10 more years – or 20, or 40. It’s this long-term uncertainty that compels organisations such as the WHO to err on the side of caution, rather than any compelling evidence that mobile technology is unsafe.

The reality is that concerns over 5G are less about the science available, and more about our relationship with technology, and the groups responsible for building and safeguarding our environment. To dispel fears about 5G, we need to restore trust in the institutions tasked with keeping us safe.

Does that mean 5G is off the hook? Well, no. There’s still a big issue that has scientists worried.

The problem lies with the 24GHz band on which 5G is broadcast. Meteorologists have voiced concern that this sits uncomfortably close to ones used to monitor Earth’s climate. ‘The frequencies are very important to us,’ says Stephen English of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. ‘These bandwidths tell you an awful lot about the atmosphere, about water vapour, clouds, temperature, precipitation. Seen from satellites, these have led to a lot of improvements in weather forecasting in the last decades.’

The bandwidths monitored by these satellites are set by the laws of physics – water molecules naturally emit a tiny amount of radiation in the 23.8GHz band – and can’t be changed. ‘We can’t just move to a new frequency in the next generation of instruments,’ says English. If not properly controlled, noise from 5G networks could interfere with readings made by weather satellites, hampering our ability to make accurate forecasts. Some estimates say this interference could cut a day off hurricane forecasts, making it harder to evacuate those in the path of these storms.

English isn’t as pessimistic, but notes that the crowding of frequencies used by meteorology sets a dangerous precedent. ‘This is the tip of the iceberg. One frequency alone may not have a huge impact, but a few years later we lose the next, and then the next; we’ll see an erosion of all these frequencies. There’s an awful lot of competition for these bandwidths.’

In November, scientists, government regulators and industry bodies will convene in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the World Radiocommunication Conference, which will establish the broadcast standards for 5G and whether limits should be imposed to protect climate observations – or not. So if you see a man climbing up a lamppost in the months after, hacksaw in hand, it might just be your local meteorologist.