Updated: June 8, 2021 9:55:17 am
“Is 5G technology safe for humans, animals, birds and other beings on the planet?” This is essentially the crux of a lawsuit actor Juhi Chawl has filed in the Delhi High Court against the telecom technology upgradation, trial runs for which have started in India now.
The fifth-generation of wireless networks for mobile broadband, or what is commonly referred to as 5G, promises ultra-fast connectivity and low-latency among its benefits. However, 5G and its rollout in many countries has been hampered due to fears over health concerns even some conspiracy theories as well, which have tried to link it with the coronavirus among other things.
But Chawla’s lawsuit is asking questions around the overall impact of 5G and low intensity radiofrequency (RF) electronic magnetic field (EMF) radiation on human health, and its environmental impact as well. These concerns, while not yet proven, have been raised by various scientists before too.
We look at why the rollout of 5G has only increased these concerns and where the debate stands so far.
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What has Juhi Chawla said in her lawsuit against 5G?
Juhi Chawla, who is also an environmental activist, filed a lawsuit against 5G rollout stating that the ‘radiation’ it will emit will be “extremely harmful and injurious to the health and safety of the people”. In a statement, the actor said she is not “against the implementation of technological advancements,” but added that while using wireless devices one is “in a constant dilemma” about “RF radiation from wirefree gadgets and network cell towers”.
Her statement adds there is “sufficient reason to believe that the radiation is extremely harmful and injurious to the health and safety of the people.” She wants the concerned department to certify that 5G technology is safe for humans and also animals and birds.
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What is 5G technology and when will it roll out in India?
5G promises to revolutionise mobile broadband and is a big generational leap over the existing 4G technology. This new technology will be capable of not just ensuring fast internet on our phones, but also help power IoT (Internet of Things) networks to run connected cars and homes smarter. It will also support streaming of rich media.
But 5G has not yet been rolled out in India though Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea have been given trial spectrum to test 5G technology in the country. Once this is over, it is expected that networks will go live with the 5G bands by the end of this year. The 5G rollout is expected to gather pace in the country by 2022.
What are the fears around the impact of 5G radiation on human health?
The claim is that the more powerful 5G waves will emit more radiation and cause harm to humans as well as other living beings. Also, 5G will require more towers in order to ensure better connectivity, and since it will power more than just our smartphones, it will increase human exposure to such radiation in general.
This is an extension of the idea that cellular towers, which emit low-level RF-EMF radiation, are in general damaging our bodies. But radiation from cellphone towers, mobile phones, WiFi routers is typically called non-ionising radiation like radio waves, microwaves, and optical radiation.
RF fields have been classified by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B). But the agency also adds that more research is needed on the subject, especially whether exposure to RF radiation increases risk for certain kinds of brain cancers.
There’s no doubt that radiation at very high levels, also referred to as ionising radiation, heats up our tissue and can eventually lead to cancer. This applies to medical devices such as a CT-scan machine or X-ray machine, which emit high-level ionising radiation. That’s exactly why doctors don’t recommend that you go get a CT-scan for every health issue because it does increase unnecessary exposure to radiation. But there are increasing concerns that our smartphones, other WiFi-ready devices such as laptops, and mobile phone towers which also emit low level RF radiation are damaging our bodies given the constant exposure.
What does the science say about increased risk from exposure to smartphones and cellphone towers?
In its page on 5G, the World Health Organization (WHO) says “no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies.” But it also states that “only a few studies have been carried out at the frequencies to be used by 5G.”
Given the growing concerns, the WHO is conducting “a health risk assessment from exposure to radio frequencies, covering the entire radiofrequency range, including 5G.” This study will be published by 2022.
After the 2010 study by WHO’s IARC to determine whether mobile phone use increases the risk of tumours, Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC, was quoted as saying that “an increased risk of brain cancer is not established from the data from Interphone.” But a lot has changed in terms of telecom technology in the past decade. The subjects then were not heavy mobile phone users by today’s standards, with a “median of 2 to 2½ hours of reported use per month”. Daily smartphone usage now far exceeds that number.
The study notes that newer technology also comes with lower emissions on average, and the use of “texting and hands-free operations” means that we keep the phones away from our head. That also needs to be factored in when conducting new studies.
But not everyone is convinced. In 2017, over 190 scientists from 39 nations wrote an appeal to the United Nations and WHO cautioning against exposure to such radiation, and called for stricter guidelines around wireless technology, arguing that these pose health risks and will add to a new form of environmental pollution
They argued the WHO has not done enough to issue protective guidelines on this subject and called for a moratorium on the rollout of the 5G until potential hazards were investigated by independent scientists. They also pointed to various other studies, including one done by the US National Toxicology Program (NTP), which showed increased cancer growth in rats after prolonged exposure to phone radiofrequency radiation.
Do cell phone towers negatively impact the environment?
This is another hotly debated claim. The environmental impact of cellular towers and radiation on bees in particular has been discussed in several studies. Studies done in India have shown that bee colonies have collapsed due to exposure to radiation from mobile phone towers.
According to one such study done in 2017 and published in the Journal of Entomology and Zoology Studies, “colonies in close proximity to mobile phone towers were most affected by the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the tower.”
However, another study published in Science of The Total Environment in 2019 said more evidence was needed to establish whether such radiation poses risks to bees. It also noted that other studies, which have made these claims, relied on unscientific methods and highly unrealistic methods of exposing bees to such radiation.
What do we know specifically about 5G’s impact on humans?
Since 5G rollout is not more than two years old, and that too in just some countries, we still don’t have a clear picture on how it impacts our health and environment.
WHO, answering FAQs on the impact of 5G on health, says “so far, only a few studies have been carried out at the frequencies to be used by 5G”. It adds that “tissue heating is the main mechanism of interaction between radiofrequency fields and the human body” and radiofrequency exposure levels from current technologies result in “negligible temperature rise in the human body”.
Also, as the frequency increases, the WHO says, “there is less penetration into the body tissues and absorption of the energy becomes more confined to the surface of the body (skin and eye)”. And since the “overall exposure remains below international guidelines, no consequences for public health are anticipated”, it adds.
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