From time to time, concerns about the safety and environmental impact of 5G networks under construction are raised. There is also a lot of disinformation around the topic. Finnish Greens for Science and Technology (Viite) considers it important – with this as well as with other topics – that the discussion is based on science and proven effects.
5G technology brings with it faster and more delay-free connections to support the services and the increasing number of devices expected in the future. For example, 3D, augmented reality applications, and remote connections require a much higher performance network (ITU).
The only new thing in the introduction of 5G technology compared to existing networks is the introduction of new frequencies. Initially, the 3.5 GHz frequency band will be introduced. Sparsely populated areas and Internet of Things customers are served at the frequency band below 1 GHz. At a later stage, 30 GHz millimeter waves will be introduced. The new base stations do not differ significantly from the existing (2G, 3G, 4G) base stations (Stuk). For example, 4G technology uses the 2.6 GHz frequency band and home WLAN routers use the 5 GHz frequency band, from which the difference to the 5G frequency band is small.
Below, we will address central unfounded fears related to 5G technology.
The safety of 5G is based on a dense base station network and the low transmission power this enables. Similarly to existing mobile networks, 5G networks use radio frequencies. Radio frequencies are non-ionizing radiation, and consequently, they do not have enough energy to cause damage to cells.
As 5G technology uses short waves, more transmitters are required. At the same time, however, the transmission power used by one transmitter will be smaller, and therefore, also the impact on the environment will be more limited (BBC). Shortwave radio transmissions are also less penetrating, and therefore reason radio radiation does not reach the body as deeply as existing network transmissions do (ICNIRP). 5G technology uses radio frequencies more efficiently than older 2G, so switching from existing 2G frequencies to 5G technology would reduce radio radiation in proportion to the amount of data transmitted.
When assessing the effect of a radiation source, it is also good to remember that the effect of the source decreases as the distance increases. The decrease is proportional to the square of the distance: as the distance doubles, the effect weakens to a quarter. Typically, the radiation effect of a cell phone at a distance of one meter is, therefore, of the same order as that of a base station at a distance of 100 meters.
The radiation safety of 5G networks is ensured by radiation protection legislation, the same as with previous technologies. The Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) is an administrative authority of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health that supervises the implementation of radiation safety in Finland.
Society and the environment
5G networks improve remote connectivity and thus contribute to society’s resilience in exceptional situations. For example, many measures taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus have been possible precisely due to remote connections. To an extent, these measures have helped to safeguard children’s rights to education and the right of many workers to work and earn a livelihood.
Concerns are often raised regarding the energy needs of 5G networks. Compared to earlier networks, base stations of 5G networks will be built more densely in areas with many users and capacity needs. Subsequently, the total electricity consumption of the base stations may increase slightly compared to previous networks. However, the electricity consumption in relation to the transferred data is likely to decrease. As 5G technology evolves, the absolute power consumption is also likely to decline over time. In addition, reducing carbon emissions from power generation is relatively inexpensive. The electricity production in Finland is already more than 80% low-emission production, and new production in line with climate targets will be connected to the grid in the coming years.
In the long run, the improvement in remote connections made possible by 5G is likely to reduce emissions and other environmental damage. For instance, increasing use of remote connections reduces traffic and therefore improves urban air quality and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. As traffic decreases, so does the need for electric cars and minerals. Consequently, there is less need to open new mines. As remote connections become more common and the need for work and meeting facilities decreases, the surface area and environmental footprint of office buildings also decreases.
Based on simulations, it has been suggested that higher 5G frequencies could have an effect on insects. However, the power absorbed by meliponnies in these simulations was at most only 0.1 microwatts. This heating power is tens of thousands of times lower than the heating power generated when a cloud moves away from the sun. Insects are also cold-blooded, and their temperature evens out with the ambient temperature faster than in larger animals due to the larger surface area relative to the mass. On this basis, concerns about the effects of 5G on insects seem exaggerated.
However, it is good to do research on the effects of the 5G network on the surrounding organisms, and to take these matters into account, for example, when locating base stations. Higher frequencies and a denser base station network are only needed at very high data rates, so they will be used mainly in large cities and indoors, similar to WLAN.
Is the 5G debate an abuse of the precautionary principle?
When discussing 5G networks, the precautionary principle is sometimes invoked, and in the strictest interpretation, 5G should be banned because we cannot be absolutely sure of its safety in all circumstances. However, the most widely adopted version of the Rio Declaration of 1992 defines the practical operation of the precautionary principle in a very different way in Article 15:
“In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
The Rio Declaration, therefore, provides an opportunity to act if the effects are likely to be irreversible, even in the absence of absolute scientific certainty. However, it does not justify opposing every change on the grounds that not all the potential risks of the change are known. Rio’s original version of the precautionary principle should be supported.
Misinterpreted, the precautionary principle can become a weapon against development. Trains were once feared to disrupt the milk production of cows. A similar non-scientific discussion can currently be seen in connection with, for example, infrasound from wind farms, vaccines, electromagnetic radiation, and 5G discussed in this text.
Responsible application of the precautionary principle requires that both risks and benefits be weighed in all situations, including with 5G. No health risks for 5G have been demonstrated. In most cases related to environmental sensitivity, the perceived symptoms are explained by the nocebo effect. No health risks for 5G have been scientifically demonstrated. Various symptoms suggestive of environmental sensitivity are due to the nosebo effect, which should not be underestimated. The conditioning of the brain to avoid what is assumed dangerous is stronger in some people than in others and can cause physical symptoms. The symptoms can be treated.
The potential risks of 5G associated with the increase in electricity consumption are speculative in the long run, but the potential benefits to society and the environment through better telecommunications connections are real. There can be no justification for opposing this technology any more than other individual mobile technologies.
Finnish Greens for Science and Technology (Viite)
Johanna Kohvakka, Chairperson
Antti Van Wonterghem
- 5G – Fifth generation of mobile technologies
- International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection
- 5G-verkon säteilyturvallisuus
- Matkapuhelimet ja tukiasemat
- Radiation, Non-ionizing
- “The factors that shape risk perception of individuals include basic societal and personal values (e.g. traditions, customs) as well as previous experience with technological projects (e.g. dams, power plants). These factors may explain local concerns, possible biases or hidden agendas or assumptions. Careful attention to the social dimensions of any project allows policy makers and managers to make informed decisions as part of a thorough risk management programme. Ultimately, risk management must take into account both measured and perceived risk to be effective“
- Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones
- ICNIRP GUIDELINES “Whole-body average SAR/kg”=0.08W/kg, localized SAR 2 W/kg
- Matkapuhelinten valvonta: Puhelimilla alle 1W/kg 2W/kg – “raja-arvo on reilusti alle sellaisen altistumistason, jolla on todettu olevan haitallisia vaikutuksia.”
- Turvallinen työskentely tukiasemien lähellä: Työntekijöille reilun metrin etäisyys tukiasemasta riittää
- ICNIRP SCI REVIEW: Mobile phone, brain tumours and the interphone study: Where are we now?“
- BBC: Does 5G pose health risks?
- New York Times: The 5G Health Hazard That Isn’t
Your 5G Phone Won’t Hurt You. But Russia Wants You to Think Otherwise.
- Literature review: https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/12/09-071852/en/
- Nature 2018 Exposure of Insects to Radio-Frequency Electromagnetic Fields from 2 to 120 GHz