All your questions and fears about 5G, answered by an electromagnetic field expert

It's no secret the 5G rollout is a contentious topic in New Zealand.

While telcos and network providers have repeatedly assured us it's safe, there remains a large portion of Kiwis who are angry about its arrival on our shores.

Some believe 5G will have dangerous impacts on our bodies, while others are simply unsure and concerned we're being used as guinea pigs to test it out. Many more are just stoked to get faster internet.

Because of the furore surrounding 5G - not to mention the new, completely unfounded links to the COVID-19 pandemic - we here at Newshub thought it'd be a good idea to take your questions and fears directly to an expert.

We've compiled a list of the best and most common questions we received from our Facebook fans, and then put them to Christchurch scientist Martin Gledhill, an electromagnetic field expert with extensive knowledge of 5G.

Take a look at his answers below.

Mikayla Wright: Is the 5G frequency in any way harmful to human beings? Considering the fact frequency waves are a lot closer together compared to 4G, would this mean it is more powerful? 

I can see what you are thinking, but what affects the power is how high the waves are, not how close together they are. How high the waves are depends on how powerful the transmitter is (and how far away from it you are). You can think of this like a HiFi system - how loud you can play the music doesn’t depend on what you are playing, but on how powerful the amplifier is.

Protests have not been able to halt the 5G rollout in Auckland.
Protests have not been able to halt the 5G rollout in Auckland. Photo credit: Getty

Many people think that '5G' refers to a particular radio frequency or range of radio frequencies, but that is not correct. 5G actually refers to the way voice calls and data are encoded onto a radio signal. It also refers to the way the data network between cell sites is organised.

The 5G systems being used in New Zealand now use radio frequencies that are similar to those being used by 4G. In the future, additional frequencies could be used. Some would be lower than those used now, and some higher. The higher frequencies would be similar to those that have been used for many years for other purposes, such as wireless data communication links.

Chrissy Clark: Can you explain why there is an amazing amount of bird deaths and trees dying off that live in close proximity to the 5G towers?

While there may be many stories circulating on the internet and Facebook about dead birds and trees being caused by 5G, they are urban legends, not facts.

One common story about birds, for example, is that hundreds of dead starlings were found in the Netherlands after a 5G site was tested.  The reality is that the only 5G test that had been carried out in the area occurred four months previously, in an office about 3km from where the birds were found, and lasted one day. That does not make 5G a plausible explanation for the birds’ deaths. Large groups of starlings dying in this way have been noted well before 5G came along.

Mattheyas Gifawossen: Why did Health Minister David Clark dismiss over 230 scientists' concerns about the rollout of 5G in New Zealand?

Science is not conducted by petitions or voting, and an opinion is only as good as the evidence presented to support it.

The 5G opinion offered by the scientists concerned, and material cited in it, does not take a systematic approach to the science but selectively cites only that supporting the opinion. Nor does it appear to make any assessment of the quality of the literature cited, for example in terms of how well it followed good laboratory practice, or the strengths and weaknesses of the work.

For those reasons the appeal has little scientific weight.

Jaycob Huiarangi: Is it safe to have 5G towers right by your home?

Any cellphone tower, using any technology, is required by law to comply with limits on exposures to the radio waves it transmits. These limits are set to protect health, and are based on a careful review of the health research. They also include a safety factor of 50.

The limits cover the frequencies to be used by 5G and will apply if and when 5G is installed at a site, so on that basis there is no problem to have a site near your home. 

I have measured the exposures to radio waves near several hundred cellphone towers and typically the highest levels are about 100 times below the legal limit. Based on what I have seen of 5G sites so far, I would not expect that maximum level to change very much.

Jonathan McCurdy: Were 5G towers still being erected during the COVID-19 alert level 4 lockdown?

No. The capacity of some 4G sites was increased, and a few temporary sites were set up in order to cope with the increased demand for mobile broadband during the lockdown.  

Mikayla Wright: As a new system for faster internet that we haven't experienced yet, should people be allowed a testing period to show if there are any actual health issues?

5G is just another radio signal, and the findings of research into the effects of radio waves on health is as valid for 5G as it is for other radio signals. There is no reason to think that 5G would affect the body any differently than other radio signals.

5G protests have erupted across the globe as the technology is rolled out.
5G protests have erupted across the globe as the technology is rolled out. Photo credit: Getty

Mattheyas Gifawossen: It has been proven many times that polarised electromagnetic fields can increase biological activities in humans. So how is 5G considered safe? 

A lot of research into the health effects of radio waves has been carried out over the past 70 years. This has been reviewed periodically by health bodies around the world to see what effects there, and at what exposure levels they arise.

Important characteristics of these reviews are that they:

  • Are carried out by people with the breadth of expertise needed to properly assess the research (for example, biologists, epidemiologists, physical scientists, statisticians);
  • Have some systematic process to identify the relevant research, whatever the findings;
  • Take account of the quality of the individual studies (for example, whether they followed good laboratory practice and made appropriate statistical tests) in assessing the reliability of the findings; 
  • Make conclusions based on all the research, rather than forming conclusions and only highlighting research that supports those conclusions.  

You can find links to examples of such reviews near the bottom of this page on the Ministry of Health website.  Unfortunately these are mostly quite technical. The Swedish reports, however, include fairly simple summaries, and there is a summary of the European report here.

By the way, all radio signals are polarised when transmitted. Because radio signals at the frequencies used by cell sites tend to reflect off many surfaces (e.g. walls, the ground) what we are exposed to from them is a pretty random assortment of polarisations.

Andrew Hadi Gurton: Are there any studies to show that 5G is safe? I mean proper, peer-reviewed, academic studies over a decent timeframe.

5G is just another way of using radio signals to transmit data and voice calls from one place to another. The large volume of peer-reviewed research that has already been carried out to look at the long and short-term safety of radio signals is as valid for 5G as it is for other uses of radio signals (such as FM radio, TV, mobile radio, radar, and 2, 3 and 4G).

Arlo Harrison: What can 5G do that 4G can't - and if it's just faster, why do we need faster? Have we become so impatient that we can't wait two seconds for something to load?

I’ll take these questions together. The main advantages promoted for 5G are increased speed, increased capacity and lower latency. You make a good point by asking whether we have become so impatient that a few extra seconds matter, but I think you also have to bear in mind that speed also affects capacity.

In recent years, mobile data use has increased rapidly. In 2018, the Commerce Commission reports that it rose by 69 percent, and a further 35 percent in 2019. Such rapid increases quickly eat into the capacity of cell sites to meet the demand, until they are no longer able to service users.

One way to increase capacity would be to add extra transmitters at the site, but there are limits to how much can be added. Another is to build extra sites, which may or may not be feasible. A third approach would be to increase the download speed, which is what 5G would do. Increased speeds could also increase the capabilities of mobile devices and the uses they can be put to.  

Latency is the time taken for a message to travel over the mobile and fixed network. In many situations, it is not a critical factor - who cares if your email takes a few tenths of a second longer to get to your phone? But if you are trying to remotely control something in real time from far away, such delays can make the difference between whether it works or not.   

Te Ahuora Mac: Can you give all capabilities of 5G, from Crown control and the impact on human biology to surveillance? And then let us know if you’d be happy having one at your kids' school and in your backyard.

5G would be quite useless for crowd control. The transmitter power is thousands of times weaker than that used in so-called “active denial” systems (And the intensity of the radio wave required for such systems is far higher than would be allowed by law in New Zealand).  

As discussed in previous replies, existing research on the effects of radio waves on health are as valid for 5G as for other radio systems. Exposure limits based on that research are set below the levels at which health might be affected.  

Surveillance is outside my area, but I note in passing that many of us already, knowingly or unknowingly, open ourselves up to surveillance through using platforms such as Facebook and by not thinking about settings on our cellphones that might allow us to be tracked. This is an important question for society to consider and for governments to act on.  

I would not have health concerns if I lived near a cell site.

Mattheyas Gifawossen: What frequency is 5G currently running off, and what frequency could it potentially operate on in New Zealand?

At the moment the 5G sites operated by Spark and Vodafone operate at frequencies around 2.6 GHz and 3.5 GHz. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is responsible for allocating frequencies, and soon it will standardise on frequencies around 3.5 GHz.

In the next two to three years, frequencies around 600 MHz (similar to those used now for TV signals) and 26 GHz (similar to those used now for wireless data communication links) could become available.  

Sunil Dhakal: If 5G is going to use the same frequency range (3.5 GHz) at the initial stage, then I want to know the difference in terms of power used by a microwave oven, Wifi Signals at home and their dissipated energy.

The power of the radio source is one factor that determines the strength of the radio waves you are exposed to. You also have to consider how far away from the source you are, as the strength of the radio wave decreases very quickly as you get further away from the source (in the same way that the light from a lamppost appears less and less bright as you get further away). For the microwave oven, you also have to remember that it is designed to contain the radio waves, rather than spread them all around the kitchen.

So having said that, the power of a microwave oven is about 1000 watts, a 5G site might operate at an average power of 100 watts, and a WiFi router at about 0.1 watts. But what matters for health is the strength of the radio wave you would be exposed to. Inside the microwave oven it would be about 10,000 times stronger than the highest level you might find in the street near a 5G site. The strength of the radio wave near a busy WiFi router would be about 1 million times weaker than you would find inside the oven.

Mattheyas Gifawossen: Are there any side effects to being over-exposed to non-ionising radiation? 

"Non-ionising radiation" is a term that covers a wide range of phenomena, including ultraviolet radiation, infrared and radio waves. However the physical properties of each of these, and the way they interact with the body can be quite different. Very high exposures to any of these can be harmful (in fact anything can be harmful if the dose is high enough).  Very high exposures to radio waves (much higher than would be found around cell sites and other transmitters) cause symptoms similar to heat stress.