Fear of 5G: Launch of new phone network sparks talk of health hazards, but do you need to worry?
The rollout of 5G, the newest mobile phone network, is causing serious health worries, but are they deserved? Technology editor Adrian Weckler finds out
'This is outrageous!"
In a packed ballroom in the basement of the Ocean Sands Hotel in the seaside Sligo town of Enniscrone, a woman is incensed.
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"They're using us as guinea pigs!" the woman shouts.
The crowd of 200 people is being shown a video made by the telecoms regulator, Comreg. It's a three-year-old promotional reel inviting international firms to test their mobile 5G frequencies in Ireland.
"How can we let them do this to us?" the women asks. There are heads shaking in solidarity. One person hisses. Over the next two hours, the crowd will get more and more agitated as tales of chronic health dangers associated with 5G and mobile masts are presented.
An academic, UCC Professor Tom Butler, tells the room over a Skype call that there is clear evidence 5G causes cancer.
Other presentations make connections with maladies ranging from obesity to depression, asthma and ADHD.
There'll be no escape for anyone in the area, the crowd hears, as new masts carrying the deadly radiation are to be erected every 300 metres along roads, "all up and down the N59" through Sligo and Mayo.
Even property values will be hit - "up to 50pc" for homes close to 5G sites, the room is told.
This is the last straw. The room comes close to boiling point.
A protest outside Sligo County Council is agreed upon. An attendee says that he will organise free bus transport. A councillor present speaks up to say that it won't make much difference, that the power rests in the Dáil.
"But we have to do something," the first woman replies.
The Enniscrone meeting is one of dozens currently happening up and down rural areas of Ireland. County councils in Roscommon, Clare, Sligo, Leitrim, Waterford, Wicklow and elsewhere are passing motions calling for a halt to the rollout of 5G mobile networks.
Rural TDs are issuing press releases urging "more examination" of the issue. A handful of campaigners, from academics to anti-pylon activists, are addressing bigger and bigger protest meetings on the issue.
The rollout of 5G has caused a groundswell of unease unlike anything seen with previous rollouts in Ireland, either of 4G (2013) or 3G (2005).
Campaigners believe that this version of high-speed mobile phone access is substantially more dangerous than previous ones.
Radiation and cancer are the main charge. A long list of secondary illnesses and conditions follow. Armed with a bottomless pit of internet research and chat forums, campaigners are scared and angry. The general population, they say, are being deliberately kept in ignorance by a combination of narrow corporate interests and state negligence. It's big tobacco all over again.
"If smartphones were being released into the market for the first time, they wouldn't be allowed," said Tom Butler, a professor in business information systems and a former research fellow for the Irish Research Council for Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS).
"There is clear evidence of cancer, clear evidence of neurological effects. This isn't scaremongering, it's a scientific fact. Humanity has sleep walked into a scenario that's quite troublesome, especially for our children."
Those on the other side of the argument tell a different story. According to a wide array of regulatory, safety and state organisations, 5G carries no more of a health threat than the 3G or 4G phones and masts we currently have.
"There is simply no evidence to support worrying about phones or masts when talking about cancer risk," says a newly published guide by the Irish Cancer Society on the 5G health question.
"The changes to frequency used by technology such as 5G means that these signals cannot even penetrate the human body. We know of no fundamental biophysical or biochemical mechanism for these signals to interact with important cellular functions."
This is echoed by Ireland's telecoms regulator, Comreg, and the World Health Organisation which says that while radio frequency radiation is "possibly carcinogenic", it's not as risky as alcohol or processed meat.
Mobile operators are simply ploughing ahead. Vodafone launched its 5G network in five cities last month, with Eir expected to follow suit later this month (and Three by the end of 2019). Within two to three years, 5G will cover almost as much of the country as 4G at present, according to the operators' buildout plans.
Who is right on the issue of 5G and health? Is there any scientific truth to campaigners' worst fears? Or is it all an overblown panic that will die down in time?
The basic science behind campaigners' fears is twofold: radiation and heat.
Phones (as well as televisions, radios and remote controls) emit what is called non-ionising radiation.
According to Ireland's regulator, this type of radiation only has sufficient energy for "excitation" and can't "break bonds that hold molecules in cells together".
In other words, it can't get inside your system to do the type of damage that might cause something like cancer.
This is the general position from regulatory and safety boards across the western hemisphere, from the WHO to scientific authorities such as the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection.
But some researchers believe that the science underpinning this is based on outdated or incomplete testing at best, or 'regulatory capture' at worst.
Wider scientific studies looking at the effects of non-thermal radiation, they say, do indeed show potentially dangerous results at a much deeper level and possible neurological damage over time.
In fact, such studies with anything more than initial indicators are thin on the ground. But a few have garnered significant attention. The most cited recent example is a decade-long test into rats and mobile radiation, undertaken by the US National Toxicology Program and published last year.
It found "clear evidence" that male rats which were exposed to high levels of radio frequency radiation from phones developed cancerous heart tumours. It also found "some evidence" of tumours in the brains and adrenal glands of male rats caused by the same source.
This, anti-5G campaigners say, is an incontrovertible smoking gun. Rats may not be humans, but we now know that they can get cancer from phones.
However, a closer look paints a more diluted picture. According to the testers, the levels of phone radiation in the study were higher and more intense than humans get from their handsets. The phones tested were also older 2G and 3G models and it was only male rats who developed the tumours: none of the female rats in the same experiment did.
In other words, it may not actually be a good guide for 5G safety at all.
"The exposures used in the studies cannot be compared directly to the exposure that humans experience when using a cellphone," said a co-author of the study, John Bucher, a scientist with the US National Toxicology Program.
This is not the only study into the wider topic of phone radiation and human health. A multitude of other papers suggesting possible links between mobile phone usage and adverse health effects have been published over the last 15 years.
But it may only be now, in an age of ubiquitous online access, that they are starting to have an impact on civic discussion.
In April, a Belgian regional environment minister, Céline Fremault, put the 5G rollout in Brussels on hold, citing uncertainty over levels of energy from masts and, by implication, their potential health effects.
"I will not allow the people of Brussels to be transformed into guinea pigs," she said, in a case that anti-5G campaigners have brought to the fore of their protests.
Elsewhere, a group of 180 scientists and doctors have written to the EU to ask for the postponement of a 5G rollout to give more time for assessing the potential health downsides.
Such actions remain isolated examples. The overwhelming weight of scientific and regulatory opinion is that mobile phone radiation is unlikely to be a significant health risk.
"Basically, if mobile phones caused brain tumours at the same rate as cigarettes cause lung cancer, someone would have spotted it," says Professor Kevin Curran of the School of Computing, Engineering and Intelligent Systems at Ulster University.
While scientists may argue over the validity of tests, some basic facts around Irish 5G infrastructure presented at anti-5G meetings are disputed by the mobile operators rolling out the networks.
One of the issues most central to health concerns is the density of masts and 'boosters' to be used for 5G.
Representatives from the three main 5G networks - Vodafone, Three and Eir - deny that there will be anything close to a site or a 'booster' every 300 metres, as claimed by campaigners.
"It is highly unlikely that sites would be required every 300 metres in rural areas and we have no plans to erect masts at that kind of density," says Fergal McCann, Eir's director of mobile networks.
"In many rural areas throughout Ireland, there is very limited infrastructure in towns and villages and they are served from hilltop sites distant from the community, so masts may need be erected closer to those population centres to facilitate an improved data service, but not to that extent and not in a chain along roads."
A spokeswoman for Three put it more bluntly.
"This isn't the case," she said of the idea to place new equipment every 300 metres. "We will be using existing infrastructure."
A Vodafone spokeswoman said that the operator "may need some additional infrastructure", but will mostly be using the sites it already has for its 5G rollout.
The issue of masts may be a key one. In an historical sense, the anti-5G movement inherits a decades-old antipathy in rural Ireland to the erection of masts.
Whereas antennae, towers and masts are generally uncontroversial in cities, they have frequently had a difficult time in rural areas.
Kerry had a "one kilometre rule" contained in its country development plan for most of the last decade. This stated that no telecoms mast could be located within a kilometre of a residence, school or anywhere that people live or occupy. This was there to ameliorate "potential health issues" associated with the masts, which were never corroborated. The rule has now been scrapped.
There is also a longstanding fear over the existence of electromagnetic sensitivity from masts (mobile or electricity), which some believe is responsible for conditions ranging from headaches to insomnia, body aches and other medical complications.
The irony that this has contributed substantially to terrible mobile coverage in some parts of rural Ireland is not lost on anti-5G advocates.
"I don't care about going back to living in the Stone Age or using a Nokia phone," says Michael Moyles, a secondary school teacher who is one of the organisers of the campaign to stop 5G in Enniscrone. "If it protects kids, we need to do it."
Moyles genuinely believes that there is an issue that needs greater investigation.
"We're not trying to scaremonger or wear tinfoil hats," he says. "We just don't want to harm our children. A couple of months ago, I knew nothing about 5G, but then I saw a planning application go up just across from my house. I started looking it up online and couldn't believe some of the things I found."
A cursory search through the pages of local newspapers or community Facebook groups shows that he's not alone in his sense of alarm. Contemporary organisations are now popping up all around the country. One in Waterford has over 6,000 members.
"A month ago, we had 20 people turn up to a meeting," says Moyles. "Then 80. Now look at the size of the crowd here tonight. This represents genuine concern."
The difficulty for anti-5G groups is a similar one that faced by anti-4G protesters seven years ago and anti-3G agitators years before that. The jury is still very much out in terms of hard evidence one way or another.
For some, that absence of certainty is reason enough to stop the rollout. Better safe than sorry.
For others, it amounts to living too fearful an existence.
But campaigners believe that the battle against 5G is just taking off.
"It takes a long time for cancer to work its way through a population," says UCC Professor Butler.
"What we're seeing at the moment is just the beginning. Fight tooth and nail to make sure that 5G antennas are not installed outside your home. Or near schools or hospitals or anywhere the sick and infirm are. Just fight tooth and nail."
A guide to 5G
What is 5G?
A newer, faster mobile network technology that all Irish operators are building out to make smartphones and broadband work faster. It will gradually replace 4G and 3G in the coming years.
Aside from speed, 5G is being touted as infrastructure that may be necessary for new types of emergency healthcare and, eventually, autonomous vehicles. This is partly due to its instantaneous connection capability, otherwise referred to as ‘low latency’.
How do I get it?
To access 5G, you’ll need a new phone, although operators so far aren’t charging extra for a 5G signal compared to a 4G or 3G one.
What are the main health objections to 5G?
Anti-5G campaigners claim that 5G might concentrate existing levels of radiation from mobile masts, antennae and infrastructure. They say this is partly because far more masts, towers and sites will be needed.
The campaigners say that this increases the risk of possible carcinogens, with a worst-case scenario of cancer. They base this fear on a number of studies that suggest links between radio frequency radiation or electromagnetic energy and living tissue. In one case, a high dose of mobile phone radiation over time was shown to give male rats cancerous heart tumours.
Should I worry?
Regulators, safety bodies and cancer organisations, both in Ireland and abroad, say that these fears are unfounded. They say that radiation from smartphones and masts is carefully measured to make sure it’s below what might be considered dangerous to humans. Mobile operators say that they will not be building a significant number of new masts, towers or sites.