Author: Ingeborg Eliassen and Paulo Pena   Published:6/12/2020  E Investgate Europe

Real 5G issues overshadowed by Covid-19 conspiracy theories

 

It was Twitter that created an entirely different virus. On January 19, as Covid-19 was spreading in China, a Twitter post speculated that there was a link between the effects of the 5G network and the disease. ‘Wuhan now has over 5000 #5G base stations and will have 50,000 by 2021 – is it a 5G disease or effect?

Even a precursory investigation would show this to be a big logical leap. Take Portugal, for example, where there is no single 5G antenna in operation. Even the auction that was to grant operators licenses to launch this new technology was postponed in March. Portugal has Covid-19, but will not have 5G anytime soon.

Image: Alexia Barakou

5G towers set on fire

The claim that there is a link between 5G and the pandemic, nevertheless went viral in Facebook groups, messages on WhatsApp, and in YouTube videos, in parallel with Coronavirus spreading across the globe.

The theory is that Covid-19 has either been caused by the frequencies used for the new mobile technology, or that the signals harm people’s immune systems so that they are easy targets for the virus.

Online fear and anger spilled into the offline world, first in the UK. Since the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdown, there have been around 90 arson and sabotage attacks on mobile masts in the country, according to Sky News. Telecom engineers out working at infrastructure have been assaulted, spat on, and forced to flee angry people. Towers have been vandalized in Ireland, in Cyprus, and in the Netherlands.

Image: Alexia Barakou

“No such evidence”

Two scientists who have spent many years sounding the alarm about potential health risks from exposure to radiofrequent electromagnetic fields, dismiss the notion that there is a scientific basis for a 5G-Coronavirus connection.

“There is no evidence that there is a relationship between 5G and the spread of Coronavirus. It is inappropriate to raise these rumors,” says Fiorella Belpoggi, Research Director at the Ramazzini Institute in Italy.

Dariusz Leszczynski, a molecular biologist and editor of of ‘Frontiers in Radiation and Health’ specialty of the Frontiers in Public Health, explains that: “Some activists claim that it is known that RF-EMF exposures, including radiation emitted from 4G and 5G, cause decline in the immune response. That is incorrect. Several studies on RF-EMF exposures and immune response have been published, but there is no proof whatsoever that there is an effect. Claims by activists that the deployment of 5G weakens immunity and helps Covid-19 to spread and infect people is absolutely wrong. There is no such evidence”.

RF-EMF: Abbrevation for “radiofrequency electromagnetic fields”. Emission of electromagnetic radiation from radiofrequency waves.

Common EMF sources are power and transmission lines, internal building wiring system, electrical panels, transformers, motors and appliances.

Common RF sources are radio and tv transmissions, mobile towers and antennas, mobile phones, wireless computer networks (WLAN) and radar equipment.

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Blurring important questions

Dariusz Leszczynski is concerned that undocumented claims that Coronavirus is caused by 5G – or that there is no virus at all, and that people are simply getting sick from 5G itself – will silence legitimate questions of health effects from mobile radiation.

The new questions on 5G add to real scientific disagreement concerning health effects of RF-EMF by former generations of mobile technology. This disagreement is barely acknowledged. The situation has opened up widespread public uncertainty that cannot be mended simply by official assurances that there is nothing to worry about. In our age of social media, vacuums are easily filled with conspiracy theories. They tend to go viral – as fast as Covid-19.

About this report

Unsubstantiated claims that Covid-19 somehow is spread by 5G have gone viral in social media. However, other issues concerning mobile technology and public health have divided the scientific community for years. In 2019, Investigate Europe interviewed a large number of scientists specializing in the effects of radio-frequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) in mobile technology. We also interviewed all relevant international bodies. Our aim was to map the scientific disputes in the field. The following, including quotes, is based on reporting that took place in late 2018 and early 2019, unless obvious or otherwise stated.

While it is easy to dismantle a 5G-Covid-19 connection, it is more difficult to answer another question: Is radiation from 5G technology completely safe?

Image: Alexia Barakou

The 5G revolution

Investigate Europe’s 2019 research on the roll-out of 5G and the landscape of science on health issues connected to RF-EMF found one disturbing fact: There is an astonishing lack of scientific studies on how new frequencies that will be used for 5G, will affect health.

“We simply don’t know. We only have a few studies, it is nothing. The only response of the industry is that 5G is low-power and therefore no problem”, says Dariusz Leszczynski.

5G is an upgrade of the previous generations of 2, 3 and 4G. But it is also much more than that. The powerful technology is going to be the base for what the telecom industry calls a “revolution.” It will allow the so-called internet of things, where everything is online and connected. 5G is needed to sustain driverless cars, remote surgery, as well as smart cities and homes, including ultra-fast access to films and music

To achieve all this, the 5G network will also use the millimeter waves part of the frequency spectrum. These are low-power, short-range waves, unable to break through walls or other obstacles, such as trees. They can be directed individually, but they have to be relayed from a base station via small antennas to avoid obstacles and reach their destination. These stations will be small, the size of fire alarm boxes.

This will compel data companies to place tens of thousands of these small base stations on street furniture, lampposts, and on the exterior and interior of buildings. Currently, the 4G network uses fewer antennas, more powerful, further away from our daily lives, thanks to its longer transmission range.

It is from the coming high number of antennas that some of the new fear of harmful effects of mobile radiation arises.

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Previous ‘Generations’: 2G, 3G, 4G

Most of the research on radiation from mobile technology and health has been done on 2G and 3G technologies. As the world is about to enter the 5G era, scientists can look at thousands of studies and calculations on health effects of radiation from 2G and 3G. But there is strong disagreement on how to interpret the results – and the implications for the 5G network, which is new, and for which there is a particular lack of studies.

Most European governments rely on scientific committees that hold on to one basic premise: the only documented health risk from mobile radiation is the heating of body tissues. Radiation safety limits are made to prevent this from happening. As long as these limits are respected, there is no risk to health, according these committees.

For most users of 3G and 4G technology, it is easy to stay on the right side of these limits: They are only reached or exceeded if you are directly in front of a base station and less than 10 meters away.

Five billion mobile users worldwide might seem as proof that this works well. A significant number of scientists, however, do not sign to that conclusion.

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Studies find risks

Historically, science on RF-EMF has been associated with the telecommunications industry and the military sector. Engineers used to dominate the field. Today, physicists, biologists and epidemiologists with other entry points and perspectives have joined the discussions.

Some of these scientists argue that people can be harmed by being exposed to mobile radiation far below the limits, especially over the course of many years of use.

The Oceania Radiofrequency Scientific Advisory Organization, an Australian entity, examined 2,266 studies and found “significant biological effects or health effects” in 68% of them. Another, the Bioinitiative Group, referred to up to 1,800 studies when it concluded that many of these effects are likely to cause health damage if people are exposed to radiation for a long time. This is because radiation interferes with the body’s normal processes, preventing them from repairing damaged DNA and creating an imbalance in the immune system, these scientists say.

According to the report prepared by the Bioinitiative Group, the list of possible damages is frightening: Poor sperm quality, autism, alzheimer’s, brain cancer and childhood leukemia.

Most European governments do not listen to these scientists. They act on advice prepared by ICNIRP, the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection. ICNIRP dismisses research concluding there are negative health effects from mobile radiation. “There are a lot of publications that are of insufficient quality. These are not taken into account in our review,” said Eric van Rongen, then chair of ICNIRP, while ICNIRP was updating their 1998 guidelines.

One report is dismissed by ICNIRP despite being the most costly and official ever: The 2018 conclusions by the National Toxicology Program, part of the US Department of Health. Their scientists had done a ten-year study of rodents at a cost of 30 million USD before concluding with “clear evidence” a link between mobile phone radiation and cancer. The earlier mentioned Ramazzini Institute in Italy recorded parallel findings in a related project.

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New safety limits

In March 2020, ICNIRP updated the guidelines that most European governments rely on. The new guidelines take into account the coming exposure to the higher frequencies that will be used for 5G. The basic premise of the guidelines remains as before: To prevent the heating of tissues.

There is minimal research done on how exposure to these higher frequencies might affect public health. Some scientists warn that there is a danger that they could heat up the body’s tissues. One of them is Dariusz Leszczynski, who used to work at the Finnish radiation protection agency, where he came to conclusions they did not share: He found mobile phone radiation impacted cells even when below the safety limits. This is important because cells are where stress is activated.

In contrast to 2, 3 and 4G radiation, 5G radiation does not penetrate the human body. So-called millimeter waves that will partly be used with 5G, don’t go deeper than the skin.

“This is being used as assurance: It’s only the skin, it doesn’t go into the brain, everything is fine,” says Leszczynski.

“But it is not so fine. The skin is our largest organ and our largest immune-response organ; it is full of cells that regulate our immune response. If we mess up the immune response in our skin, we mess up the immune response of our bodies altogether”.

So is 5G radiation exposure on skin dangerous?

“We simply don’t know”, says Leszczynski. He is adamant that more studies must be done. “This is a cliche, but this is the problem: we lack research on very basic things. It sounds so simple, but it is expensive. And those who are influential, like industry, don’t want it,” Leszczynski claimed.

ICNIRP’s van Rongen agreed that more science is needed. “ There are still a number of uncertainties. For instance, the long term effects of mobile phone use on brain tumors are insufficient to draw conclusions. Most of the ongoing research now focuses on long term effects. That is the information we need. For the time being we have to deal with the info we have. But we definitely need more,” said van Rongen.

Meanwhile, the message from ICNIRP is that there are no risks. The updated radiation limits guidelines ‘provide improved protection for higher frequency 5G and beyond.’

‘Parts of the community are concerned about the safety of 5G,’ Eric van Rongen noted in the press release. ‘We hope the updated guidelines will help put people at ease.’

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Tools for politicians

Where science is not complete, European governments have a special tool at hand: The precautionary principle. When you have a potentially serious and irreversible hazard to many people, but inconclusive evidence, precaution can be justified.

“It wasn’t designed for scientists, it was designed for policymakers,” said David Gee, former “Senior Adviser, Science, Policy and Emerging” issues at the EEA, European Environmental Agency. But policymakers tend to get too caught up in the science, rather than focusing on their job, which is to decide what action to take or not to take, he said.

Another reason not to take precautions is that limits may restrain a profitable business. “Policymakers often want to wait for “beyond all reasonable doubt” strength of evidence. But by definition, that comes too late. Once the evidence of harm is given, the harm is done,” Gee says.

The precautionary principle is part of the EU Treaty, and there are dozens of cases where it has been successfully used. The EU’s ban on antibiotics in animal feed is one such case. “Pfizer took the EU Commission to court on this ban, arguing insufficient evidence,” Gee explains. “The Commission won. The court essentially said that this is what the precautionary principle was designed for.”

ICNIRP’s safety limits take into account the needs of the telecommunications industry, according to Dariusz Leszczynski: “Eastern countries had a tradition with military research which ended up with lower safety limits. ICNIRP has more industry-driven safety limits, meaning limits that are applicable to the industry. Their aim is to set safety limits that don’t kill people, while technology works – so something in between.”

Eric van Rongen agreed that the uncertainty could be a reason to apply precautionary measures. That is not ICNIRP’s task, but ICNIRP’s limits are set with a large degree of conservatism, so precaution is already applied, he said.

“National authorities could consider those uncertainties large enough, and the possible effects serious enough, to take further precautionary measures. These do not necessarily have to mean lowering exposure limits,” according to van Rongen.

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The Swiss example

Switzerland practises precaution. It has its own radiation limits that are much lower than those of most European countries. The Swiss environmental agency, BAFU, has warned of unknown public health risks related to “electrosmog” due to the large increase in electromagnetic fields created from mobile technology. A task force that examined the issue last year, was unable to agree on any common recommendation. The Swiss parliament has twice refused to relax the radiation exposure limits.

Two researchers at the Swiss institute IT’IS claimed in 2018 that radiation above 10 GHz can cause tissue damage by heating the skin to ‘tens of degrees.’

One of these researchers, Esra Neufeld, told Investigate Europe: “Some categorically deny that there are anything other than the thermal effects. […] Others say the non-thermal effects are extremely underestimated. The literature is still contradictory. The bad thing about 5G is that there are practically no biological experiments that show how this radiation actually affects the skin.”

“The use of millimetre waves – frequencies above 10 GHz – is not currently approved in Switzerland,” according to Ivo Minger, a BAFU spokesperson. He responded to a question from Investigate Europe about the IT’IS study in February 2020. Thus, IT’IS’ finding has had no impact on the Swiss governments plans for a 5G roll-out, he noted.

But since 5G partly depends on these frequencies, this has delayed the 5G roll-out. As of February 2020, three out of 26 cantons and municipalities had imposed a moratorium on 5G technology. “In cities and conglomerations, only approximately 2% of the existing installations can be expanded with the capacities needed for 5G,” according to Minger.

In April, the Swiss government declared it would keep current safety standards for 5G ‘to protect the population from non-ionizing radiation,’ according to Reuters.