The COVID-19 pandemic and 5G technology found themselves unlikely bedfellows earlier this year, as more than 70 cell phone towers in the United Kingdom and Europe were burned by those who blamed network rollout for the spread of infection.
The arson attacks brought a rebuke from Mobile UK, the trade association that represents UK telecoms providers. In a statement, the group called the attacks "senseless," and said that links between COVID-19 and 5G are "false and have been continuously rebuffed by scientists."
Such retaliations have come at a social cost. Mobile UK spokesperson Gareth Elliott said in an email that there have been 130 arson attacks and over 200 instances of "abuse to staff." Elliott did not have a cost estimate for the tower repairs.
The attacks, an extreme reaction, were the result of rumors started on social media and other internet outlets that linked the technology with the global health crisis. And while the United States has not yet seen any reported copycat attacks of tower arsons, the Department of Homeland Security and NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association have both warned of such activity, particularly during the 5G Global Protest Day on June 6 this year.
Some local U.S. leaders have passed resolutions urging a moratorium on the technology until more research can be done — an uncommon approach from city officials. And in New Hampshire, a state commission released a report urging more restriction on the technology until the health effects are understood. Meanwhile, the spread of misinformation has technologists concerned about the public reaction as more 5G rolls out in cities. In response, there have been calls for more education on the technology but so far there has been little done publicly.
"We believe there is a tremendous opportunity for the mobile industry at large to better educate the public on 5G, both in terms of the capabilities that it brings, as well as the health effects," Dan Hays, principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), said. "However, there is generally distrust in companies in the mobile industry. I think that's where government becomes particularly important in educating, especially when it comes to health effects. Although we're also in an era where there's growing distrust of governments around health information."
Health concerns spark uncertainty
Much of the uncertainty surrounding 5G technology appears to stem from concerns around its effects on health, which critics say have yet to be adequately addressed by telecom companies and the federal government.
The main criticism of the technology focuses on the effects of exposure to radio-frequency (RF) energy from mobile phones, which has been linked to various maladies such as cancer and complications of the reproductive and neurological systems, including in children. It has also been linked to various environmental effects.
An oft-cited 2018 study by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), part of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences within the National Institutes of Health, found "clear evidence" that certain RF frequencies cause a higher risk of cancer in white rats.
But in a statement, Jeffrey Shuren, director of the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said the findings "should not be applied to human cell phone usage," and disagreed with the conclusion of "clear evidence" of carcinogenic activity in rodents exposed to RF energy. Shuren said animal studies "contribute to our discussions on this topic," but cannot be extrapolated to humans.
Several groups have amplified those health concerns, including the Environmental Health Trust (EHT), which has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) challenging its RF standards and rule-making process. Theodora Scarato, EHT's executive director, criticized Shuren's conclusion.
With the increased amount of wireless infrastructure needed to ensure 5G coverage, like small cells and antennae, Scarato said radiation effects could multiply. Currently, the heating effects of wireless devices are the only ones assessed, Scarato said, and that is inadequate.
"We're going to have more wireless antennas, we're going to have more wireless things in the internet of things (IoT)," Scarato said. "[It's] expected that there's going to be an elevation in the overall ambient level of radio frequency."
Americans for Responsible Technology (ART) has raised similar concerns. Its founder and director Doug Wood said it is possible exposure to RF energy will be high as infrastructure to support 5G is quickly developed under an FCC order streamlining that process.
"Although we can't draw a straight line yet between a particular exposure and a health outcome, we have plenty of science that shows wireless radiation, even at levels below the FCC guidelines, that's capable of causing biological change," Wood said.
"5G is just as safe as prior generations of wireless technology," FCC spokesperson Will Wiquist said in an email. "The Commission reiterated that existing RF standards fully protect the public's health."
"The reality is that 5G is operating on largely the same frequency bands that cellular networks have operated on for many years, or frequency bands that have been used in historically for other technology."
Outside experts noted that the health risks associated with 5G are no different from other generations of wireless technology, as one builds on another rather than replaces it outright.
"The reality is that 5G is operating on largely the same frequency bands that cellular networks have operated on for many years, or frequency bands that have been used in historically for other technology," Hays said.
Medical professionals dispute health fears
Christopher Collins, a professor in the Department of Radiology at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine, said the health risks from 5G technology and wireless radiation are minimal. "The short answer is that there are no proven adverse health effects of electromagnetic fields related to cell phone technologies," Collins said.
"Yes, there are lots of studies indicating there may be health effects or potential for health effects, but if you look at these publications you will find that the only studies that can be repeated reliably are at much higher power levels than used for communications technologies, where significant heating of tissues can occur," Collins continued. "Related to this, a whole bunch of different studies reporting a whole bunch of different effects of a whole bunch of different types of electromagnetic fields doesn't mean anything if none of the effects can be repeated by different investigators."
And Kenneth Foster, a professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, said worries about 5G's impacts on health are a "decidedly minority perspective on this issue." He noted the litany of governmental reports that have rejected those concerns.
"A more balanced approach would be to review health agency reports, which consistently fail to find clear evidence of hazards from RF energy below US and international limits," Foster said.
Those views are echoed by the Committee on Man and Radiation (COMAR), a committee out of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) of 30 professionals in engineering, biology, medicine and other fields. COMAR found that if exposures remain below established guidelines, research does not support the view that adverse health effects are associated with RF exposure, including those from 5G systems. IEEE declined to comment further.
Initial local responses
At the local and state level, health concerns and uncertainty around 5G technology have prompted a small number of elected officials to act with non-binding resolutions that urge a halt to the deployment of 5G technology so more research can be done.
Easton, CT is one municipality that passed such a resolution in May. Effective until Dec. 31, 2020, the resolution calls for telecom companies and utilities to stop build-out "until such technologies have been proven safe to human health and the environment through independent research and testing."
During the Easton Board of Selectmen meeting in which the resolution was unanimously approved, Selectman Robert Lessler said the pause would give local officials a chance to "put the brakes on" and "do some more due diligence" on 5G technology.
Though the resolution is set to expire at year's end, its expiration means the issue will be revisited, First Selectman David Bindelglass said. Bindelglass did not respond to requests for comment on the future status of the resolution.
"I have personally some questions about the validity of the argument that 5G is unsafe," Bindelglass said at the time. "Having said that, I do have to admit that there are people who are both influential and intelligent who have more concern than I do, and I respect that. I don't think we lose anything by doing this."
"Let me say this: There has been no study to date that shows the technology is safe."
Hawaii County Councilmember
The Hawaii County Council passed an identical resolution in July, taking what Councilmember Matt Kaneali`i-Kleinfelder described as a "precautionary approach."
"Let me say this: There has been no study to date that shows the technology is safe," Kaneali`i-Kleinfelder said, according to a transcript of the meeting.
That resolution has been supported by ART through its 5G Crisis project. Wood said those efforts are a bid to shape public opinion.
"We're not going to win in Washington, we're not going to get congressional hearings, we're not going to get Congress to do much, we're not going to get the FCC to do much," Wood said. "[The] purpose of the non-binding resolution is to make it clear not everybody thinks this 5G thing is a great idea."
One state has tried to take action on those health concerns, too. New Hampshire established its Commission to Study the Environmental and Health Effects of Evolving 5G Technology last year, and the commission issued a report last month saying "there is much research showing potential health risks," and "much more research is required."
The commission made a series of recommendations, including for more public education on the risks of RF energy and a review of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which it said has inadequate RF standards given how technology has evolved.
Kent Chamberlin, chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of New Hampshire and a member of the commission, said no members want "to stop 5G, or to get rid of 5G," but instead want to better understand the risks associated.
"A comparison I like to make is the cars we drive," Chamberlin said. "We lose a substantial number of people on the highway in our cars, and a lot of other people are injured in driving. Yet we consider that to be a price worth paying for the benefits we receive from being able to drive cars. In the commission we had a similar feeling. Yes, there are some downsides, some potential health effects. We don't know how severe those effects are."
UPenn professor Foster took particular issue with one of the commission's recommendations, which said "all new cell phones and all other wireless devices sold come equipped with updated software that can stop the phone from radiating when positioned against the body."
"Sure," Foster said in response. "Why not design cars to turn off their engines when people are in them."
A minority on the commission also disagreed with the report's recommendations. It wrote that the "consensus of the U.S. and international scientific community is that there are no known adverse health risks from the levels of RF energy emitted at the frequencies used by wireless devices (including cellphones) and facilities (including small cells)."
In a brief interview, state Sen. James Gray, one of three members of the commission to issue the minority report, declined to comment further on its contents.
CTIA, the trade association that represents U.S. telecom companies, has sent letters to local governments that pass a non-binding resolution opposing 5G rollout on health grounds. The association notes in its letters that resolutions conflict with federal law as the FCC has said that moratoria on infrastructure deployment are "clearly unlawful."
CTIA said health concerns, which are used to justify the resolutions, are "based on inaccurate scientific claims," and "the weight of scientific evidence shows no known adverse health effects to humans from exposure to wireless antennas or devices."
Vacuum of information creates misinformation
Disagreements on the science surrounding RF exposure and the health effects of 5G have only enabled the unintended consequence of misinformation around the technology.
Its rumored role in the spread of COVID-19, which began circulating online, was amplified by former British television presenter David Icke and others, leading to Icke's suspension from social media. YouTube also tightened its rules and banned all videos that linked the technology to the spread of COVID-19.
The International Council of Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) issued a statement in April saying that claims linking the coronavirus infection to 5G "are not feasible."
Scarato and Wood both alleged that telecom companies have emphasized the arson attacks in a bid to discredit the science-based concerns around 5G, though Wood did say that those who espouse the conspiracy theory undermine their message. Industry representatives did not directly respond to the allegations but urged calmer heads to prevail.
"Attacks on cellphone towers are a significant risk to wireless industry employees and to public safety," a CTIA spokesperson said in an email. "We urge everyone to take them seriously."
But public unease around the technology persists, according to a recent Deloitte study. The survey, carried out in May to assess the digital attitudes of 4,150 respondents between the ages of 16 and 75, found 43% of UK consumers are "confident" that 5G does not pose health risks, while 14% believe there are health risks associated with the technology.
Paul Lee, global head of technology, telecommunications and media research at Deloitte, said much of the health concerns come from a lack of understanding about how mobile networks work. That lack of understanding can then create a vacuum, into which misinformation can step, Lee said.
"We've had a quarter of a century with mobile phones, and there's never really been a need to understand how they work," Lee said. "All that has been necessary is to understand that they do work, and whenever a new version of mobile is introducing new standards, so be it 3G, 4G, or 5G, there have always been a few people who have been worried about the health impacts."
Responding to the misinformation
If there is to be more public confidence in 5G technology, Lee said governments may need to look to public information campaigns and other outreach.
The BBC formerly hosted a television program called "Tomorrow's World," which looked to explain futuristic technologies and new innovations. With mass market appeal, something similar could be a good vehicle for public education, Lee said, noting there could also be a way to craft 30-second educational commercials.
"On one side, you've got people who have a big following, who spread misinformation," Lee said. "What you need is someone to counter that. Someone who will explain without patronizing because it is very complex ... With a good advert and 30 seconds you can convey enough to change opinion."
PwC's Hays said it is incumbent on ordinary people to educate themselves about 5G technology and break through that misinformation, including by finding reputable sources of information. With telecoms and technology companies releasing 5G-ready phones, Hays said it will move more quickly into the mainstream.
"It’s almost like climate change, I think. Some people are never going to be convinced."
Selectman, Easton, CT
"I think that consumers can absolutely go out and look for authoritative sources on how to better understand 5G technology, and the associated risks and benefits," Hays said. "[Quite] frankly, the recent launches of more mainstream 5G mobile devices is almost going to force the question of how well the public understands 5G. We expect that it won't happen overnight, but over the next year or two, the public acumen around 5G should really start to rise."
The minority report from the 5G commission in New Hampshire noted the need for more public education on the benefits of the technology, something it said the commission had pledged to study but failed to do so. "Had this been done, the Commission would have been made aware of the significant economic and societal benefits that 5G is predicted to provide," the minority report reads.
Some elected leaders said the issue may never truly go away, even as 5G technology becomes more prevalent.
"It’s almost like climate change, I think," Easton Selectman Robert Lessler said during the board's May meeting. "Some people are never going to be convinced."