Does 5G Pose Health Risks in the NEK?

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – At recent select board meetings, some residents have spoken out regarding their concerns about adverse health effects of 5G and urged the board to take action. Among the concerns cited by the group are that a 5G tower or antennae in Hardwick would pose a health threat to children, plants, and animals. Assessing the possible threat that 5G may pose, however, is a complicated undertaking. Governmental public health authorities do not currently recognize a danger.

5G Is Not Just One Thing

“5G” is not just one technology. It describes a group of technologies intended to advance cell service to its next generation. The major carriers are all rushing to claim that they offer “Nationwide 5G.” To accomplish that, they are using three different ranges of radio frequencies, depending on the cell site’s location and surrounding population density. Two of three frequency ranges are in use today on 4G networks and in those cases, 5G will simply supersede 4G without changing the frequency or antenna. Effectively, carriers would repurpose the existing 4G frequencies and antennae to 5G in what has been described by AT&T in media reports as a “software upgrade.”

The Vermont House Committee on Technology and Energy found that one report on 5G’s negative impacts “makes the common mistake that 5G only uses millimeter waves (mmWave). The reality is that 5G employs low-band and mid-band microwaves as well as millimeter waves.”

mmWave 

The highest range of frequencies used in 5G cell service is known as millimeter wave or “mmWave” and is the only one truly capable of delivering significantly faster data transmission speeds. It is also a frequency range that some say can be harmful.

Radio waves in the higher frequencies travel a shorter distance than lower-frequency signals and are worse at penetrating obstacles like walls and trees. The higher the frequency, the lower the range and the greater the susceptibility to obstacles. These characteristics make deployment of mmWave services expensive compared to 4G and lower-frequency 5G services.

Are 5G Signals Dangerous?

The quick answer is that there is no evidence that they are, but more study is needed.

In the meanwhile, there are plenty of organizations that argue both sides of the question.

In its “Technology, Media, and Telecommunications Predictions 2021,” the consulting company Deloitte states that “extensive scientific evidence proves that mobile phone technologies have no adverse health impacts — not just for 5G but also earlier generations.”

But there is also concern that the lack of scientific evidence of health risks does not mean that increasing exposure to radio frequency (RF) services is safe. Even a brief search of the internet shows that a number of organizations and scientists are highlighting risks that they see arising from some or all RF communications services (not just mmWave). 

The official public health authorities are cautious. On a webpage titled “Frequently Asked Questions about Cell Phones and Your Health,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) answers the question “Can using a cell phone cause cancer?” by stating that “There is no scientific evidence that provides a definite answer to that question. Some organizations recommend caution in cell phone use. More research is needed before we know if using cell phones causes health effects.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) answers the question “What are the potential health risks from 5G?” as follows:

“To date, and after much research performed, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies. Health-related conclusions are drawn from studies performed across the entire radio spectrum but, so far, only a few studies have been carried out at the frequencies to be used by 5G.”

Based on the statements from the CDC and WHO, the best answer as to whether 5G poses a risk to health is that there is currently no evidence that it does, but that the subject requires further study.

mmWave Deployment in the Northeast Kingdom

As stated earlier, “5G” is delivered via three different frequency ranges: two that re-purpose existing 4G spectrum, and a new service that is mmWave-based.

In order to deploy mmWave services, wireless telephony providers would have to invest in large numbers of antennae that are situated close to one another because the signal attenuates (loses strength) in rain and over relatively short distances. Given the expense of installing mmWave equipment and the low concentration of residents – and, therefore, paying customers – in the NEK, it is unlikely that mmWave 5G will be deployed in this area any time soon. 

T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray wrote in a blog post that a “mmWave-only 5G plan is only for the few. And it will never reach rural America. Some of this is physics – millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum has great potential in terms of speed and capacity, but it doesn’t travel far from the cell site and doesn’t penetrate materials at all. It will never materially scale beyond small pockets of 5G hotspots in dense urban environments.”

Conclusion

The official public health consensus is that there is no evidence that 5G causes health risks, but that more research is needed. The health risk of 5G deployment to residents in the NEK is likely no different than the deployment of 4G since part of “5G” uses 4G spectrum and the new part, mmWave, is unlikely to be deployed because it would not be commercially feasible.