Last week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made a big, bold announcement on 5G, the next generation of mobile internet (fifth generation cellular network technology).
She committed Scotland to becoming a ‘5G leader,’ claiming that the country would benefit enormously from the ‘vast potential growth’ that 5G could unlock. An accompanying Scottish Government document ‘Forging our Digital Future with 5G’ sets out how this technology could improve, for example, health care and environmental management as well as allow ‘the internet of things’.
What the First Minister or strategy document failed to acknowledge is the mounting concern among many scientists and doctors on the health implications of 5G. One of the most vocal critics is Dr Martin Pall, Emeritus Professor of biochemistry and general medicine at Washington State University in the US. Pall maintains:
Putting in tens of millions of 5G antennae without a single biological test of safety has got to be about the stupidest idea anyone has had in the history of the world.
Pall has extensively studied the effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) mainly caused by phone signals and wi-fi and has shown how existing technology affects the human body. Like many other researchers and doctors, he argues that this everyday radiation is leading to the rise of a whole range of health problems such as auto-immune diseases and cancer. Indeed he argues:
low level EMF exposures attack each of the four things we often value most as individuals and as a species: Our health, our brain function, the integrity of our genomes and our ability to produce healthy offspring.
Professor Pall is particularly concerned about 5G given the frequencies it uses, its pulsation and the way it is delivered by mounting antennae on lamp posts in residential streets. Indeed he is so concerned that he predicts that such exposures could have potentially disastrous consequences for human civilisation.
Others have sought to debunk his work but Pall is not a lone voice. For example, Professor Trevor Marshall, an auto-immune specialist, agrees wholeheartedly that blanket coverage of 5G could have profoundly negative effects on our society. What’s more, there are now two substantial petitions, signed by hundreds of scientists and medical practitioners, asking the EU or international agencies to halt the roll out of 5G. Some politicians are listening: city authorities in Brussels, Florence and the municipality of Rome have blocked the use of 5G. In the UK the towns of Glastonbury and Frome have resolved to stop 5G and there is a major campaign against its roll out in the south west of England.
In Scotland 5G is already in Edinburgh with antennae mounted not just in city centre streets but some residential areas. There is also a test site in Glasgow and 5G is being trialled in Orkney. Initially in the UK 5G will use frequencies similar to 4G and won’t use the millimetre wave spectrum that so many scientists and doctors are worried about. Nonetheless it is ramping up people’s exposure to wireless frequencies as these antennae are like mini cell phone towers sited in busy streets and paving the way for full strength 5G.
Given the health concerns why are our politicians, like those in Westminster, allowing 5G to go ahead? Surely there are authorities who advise them on the safety of wireless technology?
In response to a Freedom of Information request on 5G, the Scottish Government stated that it ‘takes advice on the health impacts of exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from Public Health England’. This organisation follows the guidance of the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). But it is this very body’s actions many scientists and doctors are criticising so robustly.
What safety standard?
The ICNIRP set its safety standard for exposure to wireless technology in 1998 when there was little radiofrequency radiation and it was widely thought that the risk was simply confined to what is called ‘thermal effects’. In other words, how much of this non-ionising radiation heats tissue thereby causing damage. But in the last 20 years more than 2000 academic studies suggest that radiation from wireless frequencies has ‘biological effects’ and that these effects can happen at levels well below that set by the ICNIRP. A 2018 article in The Lancet summarises the research and explains the problem:
Prevention of tissue heating by radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation is now proven to be ineffective in preventing biochemical and physiological interference. For example, acute non-thermal exposure has been shown to alter human brain metabolism … electrical activity in the brain, and systemic immune responses. Chronic exposure has been associated with increased oxidative stress and DNA damage and cancer risk.
A biological effect, even from low levels of EMFs, is perfectly plausible. Electrical impulses are fundamental to human physiology: our hearts, brains and even the microbiota in our gut communicate electrically so these could easily be influenced by radio wave frequencies. Of course, there are some scientists who still argue that we should only be concerned with thermal effects and that the standards are safe. However, a 2019 article in the peer-reviewed journal Magnetochemistry points out ‘at most a few dozen scientists continue to defend the thermal-only paradigm. Five times that number … have signed the International EMF Scientists Appeal.’
Others like Kenneth K. Foster, a professor of bioengineering, and John E. Moulder, Emeritus Professor of Radiation Oncology, while not necessarily saying that there can only be thermal effects, take issue with Pall’s claim that wi-fi is unsafe, claiming that the studies he refers to are badly done and that he is guilty of ‘cherry picking.’
However, it is difficult to look at this scientific controversy, and the fears many doctors and scientists have about 5G, and not advance the ‘precautionary principle’. This says that the public should not be exposed to harm when scientific research suggests, but has not necessarily proven categorically, that there are risks. Even if there is not 100 per cent proof that EMFs do harm there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that we need to proceed with caution. Remember how long it took governments to act on tobacco, asbestos and thalidomide.
It’s also concerning that 5G which, thanks to the Scottish Government, will hastily be rolled out not just to urban but rural Scotland, has never been subjected to health checks. Would anyone allow officials to add anything to the water supply without rigorous health testing? Pharmaceutical companies have to test drugs for years before bringing them to market and get approval from bodies such as NICE, why are telecom companies not obliged to do the same?
Some countries do not use the ICNIRP standard and set exposure limits much lower than what that body advises. As Figure 1 shows this is true for both Russia and China. What this figure shows too is that the UK adheres to a standard which permits the highest level of non-ionising radiation in the world.
Figure 1: Adapted from Dr Isaac Jamieson’s work and reproduced by the Physicians’ Health Initiative for Radiation and Environment
Babies and children
What is particularly concerning is the impact that our current exposure to microwave radiation may be having on pregnant women, infants and children. The Physicians’ Health Initiative for Radiation and Environment explains why children are particularly vulnerable:
‘A five year old can absorb sixty percent more microwave radiation than an adult and exposures in bone marrow can be up to ten times greater.’
It goes on to point out that children are more likely to suffer greater ‘biological effects from EMR exposure’ because they have thinner skulls and smaller bones and this allows for ‘greater absorption into bone and deeper tissues’.
What’s more, children’s brains (especially neonates) can have higher water content and so absorb more radiation than adults. Normal neurodevelopment may also be compromised by exposure to various microwaves, particularly during sensitive periods of development. France, Israel and Cyprus have all banned wi-fi in pre-schools. Belgium has banned the sale of mobile phones to children. Contrast that to what’s happening here: a UK survey found that a quarter of children under six have a smart phone and use it for up to 21 hours per week.
But if researchers are worried about children’s current exposure to EMFs, many are extremely fearful of what will happen with 5G. Professor Trevor Marshall calculates that the advent of small cell 5G antennae on lamp posts will be like having a phone tower every 20-30 feet in residential areas. Given the strength of the signal, he says, this will raise people’s EMF exposure at home thousands of times. What will this mean for children playing outdoors in gardens or in the street? What does it mean for children attending schools, nurseries, or playparks, particularly since they absorb more radiation? The Scottish and Westminster Governments are silent on any 5G health issue, including its potential impact on children. How can the Scottish Government square this with its desire for Scotland to become ‘the best country in the world to bring up children’?
But the impact on human health is far wider as these radiofrequency electromagnetic fields affect all living things. The Environmental Health Trust has compiled a summary of the burgeoning research literature on the effect of EMFs on animals, plants and insects. Radio frequencies have been shown to have an impact on insects and migratory birds. Dr Andrew Goldsworthy argues it is because they use ‘a group of magnetically-sensitive substances called cryptochromes for magnetic and solar navigation and also to control the activity of their immune systems.’ There are now various studies which show that EMFs may be implicated in the collapse of bee colonies. A European study showed that trees in the vicinity of cell phone towers are ‘damaged’ by the radio-magnetic radiation. Researchers have shown that crops like tomato, onion and maize are very sensitive to RF-EMFs even at low levels.
When we add environmental findings to the fact that some meteorologists predict that 5G could interfere with satellites and therefore weather forecasting and the widespread concern about the personal and national security implications of 5G (e.g. the role of the Chinese company Huawei), its rapid deployment in Scotland should cause real public concern.
Political and economic considerations
The ICNIRP’s standards have also been supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) while both bodies have come in for considerable criticism from scientists and doctors for holding to such standards in the light of current research on biological effects. Swedish oncologist Professor Lennart Hardell has studied the ICNIRP:
ICNIRP is a private organisation (NGO) based in Germany. New expert members can only be elected by members of ICNIRP. Many of ICNIRP members have ties to the industry that is dependent on the ICNIRP guidelines. The guidelines are of huge economic and strategic importance to the military, telecom/IT and power industry.
There’s little doubt that Big Wireless has a huge economic interest in the continuation of the present light-touch regulation for existing devices. When it comes to 5G they stand to lose billions with tighter regulation or an outright ban. In her statement on 5G Nicola Sturgeon estimated that it could add £17 billion to Scotland’s gross domestic product and an additional £3.3 billion of export sales by 2035.
At the end of July she gave an inspiring TED talk on the ‘wellbeing economy’ which has already been viewed by over a million people. She concluded by saying:
I want, and I’m determined, that Scotland will also be the country that helps change the focus of countries and governments across the world to put well-being at the heart of everything that we do. I think we owe that to this generation. I certainly believe we owe that to the next generation and all those that come after us.
The First Minister should urgently look again at her government’s enthusiastic embrace of 5G and start applying the precautionary principle. Yes, we need technology but fibre optic cabling to homes and wired connections within them are much safer alternatives. This is what the Scottish Government should promote.
Meanwhile, the rest of us should start saying loudly to our local councils, governments and phone companies that we are not prepared to be 5G guinea pigs.
Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary, adds:
We are rapidly learning about the effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields on life, and how they interfere with processes within the cells of all living things. The ‘rolling out’ of 5G will have effects that we cannot predict on health and might be seriously damaging. There are at least as important security concerns about the use of this technology, and about the hands into which it may be delivering information; 5G may turn out to be a Trojan horse. It is therefore irresponsible to embrace this technology without much more thorough evaluation of its risks, especially given that we have fibre optic that poses neither a health risk, nor a security risk, and does not disfigure our towns and countryside with the need for further transmitters. Please take note of what Carol Craig is arguing, and voice your concerns to the Scottish Government.
Prof John Frank, chair Public Health and Policy, Edinburgh University, comments:
Driving this current debate on EMFs is a steady accumulation of lab and animal evidence that would force any rational person to invoke the precautionary principle. In particular I am conviced by the writings of Pall and others that there are just too many suggestive findings (as well as many uncertainties) in the research in vivo and in vitro on EMFs in the frequency/wave-length range and intensity levels expected from 5G transmission/reception systems, to be confident that they are ‘safe’ for deployment now. Given this I agree with the overall conclusions of Carol Craig’s article.
Main image of anti-5G protest in Switzerland: by MHM55, licensed under Creative Commons via Mid City Messenger