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5G cell towers are provoking opposition, despite lack of evidence

Hold on to your hats: the arrival of 5G cell towers is reigniting debate about radiation exposure levels.

The arrival of the next generation of mobile phone networks is shaping up to be as contentious as vaccination and water fluoridation. A tiny but vocal minority in society is convinced that using mobile phones can cause a wide range of damaging health effects, from painful hypersensitivity to brain tumours. They view the arrival of 5G networks as a public-health nightmare threatening the five billion people who currently use mobile phones, with no obvious effects on their health.

The mobile industry scoffs at the anti-5G brigade as “tinfoil-hat wearers”. The world’s leading scientists in this area soberly point out that their claims aren’t backed by the evidence. But none of that matters. More powerful, more seductive, is the anecdote – the social-media post or video outlining a sincere human story of suffering. Take early childhood teacher Peter, who wrote to me after I appeared on TV talking about 5G.

Peter wrote that my interview was offensive. He suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, “due to living and working near cellphone towers and high-voltage power lines for years”.

“If you don’t believe me, try standing one foot away from a smart meter for two minutes and see if it effects you,” he wrote.

I tried that. I have a smart electricity meter in my basement. I didn’t feel anything other than boredom. But I have no doubt that Peter thinks he feels something. Indeed, medical scientists now understand this phenomenon.

“Studies show that such people do experience symptoms, but only when they know they are being exposed,” says Keith Petrie, a professor of health psychology at the University of Auckland. “In double-blind conditions where they are exposed without knowing whether the electromagnetic field is on or off, no reliable effects are apparent.”

They call it the nocebo effect. If you are worried about the bad effects of something, there’s a chance you will experience them. In numerous drug trials, patients who have been given a placebo – a sugar pill with no drug included – often report experiencing positive mental or physical effects. Peter should have his mind put to rest. If he believes the radio waves around him are harmless, there’s a good chance he’ll feel nothing.

But what about the cancer risk of using mobile phones? The World Health Organisation said in 2011 that the evidence on the subject was “limited” or “inadequate”. But it caused a furore by classifying radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

More recent studies confirm the scientific consensus that there are no adverse health effects within the radiation exposure limits the mobile industry has to comply with. Will 5G be any different?

“No,” says Martin Gledhill, the former director of the National Radiation Laboratory and a leading expert on radio emission levels.

“5G is just a new application of radio technology, and the knowledge gained from some 60 years of research is as applicable to 5G as any other form of radio technology.”

Still, given that some of us spend hours on our smartphones every day, talking, messaging and surfing the web, it would be useful to see the results of a big, well-designed study that examines today’s intensive mobile-phone usage. The Cosmos study, underway since 2010, involves nearly 300,000 people from six European countries. It draws long-term usage data from each participant’s mobile-phone operator.

The study may settle the issue once and for all after it concludes in 2021. But would a clean bill of health for mobile phones convince Peter?

Vodafone will turn on 5G base stations in December in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown. Spark aims to launch 5G by next July. One thing is clear, you can expect the anti-5G brigade to fight it, cell tower by cell tower.

This article was first published in the August 31, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.