Susan Crawford (@scrawford) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED, a professor at Harvard Law School, and author of Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution—and Why America Might Miss It.
Wallace-Wells points out that even though thousands of scientists, perhaps hundreds of thousands, are daily trying to impress on lay readers the urgency of collective action, the religion (his word) of technology creates a belief that, to the extent there is some distant and disputed problem, everything will be mysteriously solved by some combination of machine learning and post-Earth survival. We’ll live in spaceships and eat lab-printed meat, and Elon Musk will fix things.
I see a parallel in another big news story: the hype and enthusiasm about 5G wireless as the “thing that will make the existing [communications] model obsolete.” 5G is touted as the solution to all our problems—which sounds pretty unrealistic, as I’ve written in the past. (We’ll still need fiber wires everywhere, including deep in rural areas, to make 5G serve everyone, and there’s a real risk that we’ll end up with local 5G monopolies absent wise government intervention.) And there’s a new (to me) angle to 5G that I’ve resisted in the past: Do transmissions to and from 5G cells, which will need to be everywhere, and much closer to us than traditional cell towers, pulsing out very-high-frequency radio waves at high power levels, pose real risks to human health?
I’ve been impatient for years with people complaining about the health effects of wireless communications. The phrase tinfoil hat leaps to mind, I readily concede. But I am learning that some scientists believe that the intensity of 5G represents a change and that 5G’s effects on humankind should be studied closely before this technology is widely adopted.
As with climate change, where denial rhetoric has been driven by companies interested in maintaining the status quo, the wireless industry is vitally interested in assuring us that 5G poses no issues—or that there’s an unresolved debate, so we should trust the existing radio-frequency exposure standards. That’s where we are now.
So far, the European Commission, focused on ensuring its market players lead the way in advanced wireless services, has rejected pausing to consider the human health effects of 5G, stating that most “5G networks are expected to use smaller cells than previous generations with lower electromagnetic fields exposure levels” and “[t]he introduction of 3G and 4G has not increased exposure from environmental fields.” The Federal Communications Commission has acted similarly.
But what if the FCC is measuring public health effects against a decades-old standard that measures the wrong thing? I think that we need better, more neutral standards based on widely accepted science.
THE WIRED GUIDE TO 5G
The FCC standard for measuring the health effects of electromagnetic radiation is based on whether the exposure, on average, will heat human tissue over short periods (six minutes for occupational work and 30 minutes for public exposure). That standard was adopted in 1996 and was based in part on standards adopted 30 years ago by a private group based in Germany called the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection that some say is loyal to both the telecom and energy industries. In 2012, the General Accountability Office found that the FCC had not ensured that its standards “reflect the latest research on RF energy exposure,” and recommended that the commission reassess and potentially change its exposure limit. The next year, the FCC launched a process to reexamine this standard, but its review doesn’t seem to be progressing.
Meanwhile, scientists don’t agree on the effects of radiation from wireless communications, and some argue that the standard needs to be reevaluated. One group says human cells can be disrupted by mechanisms that don’t necessarily involve heating. Others say the standard measures average exposure rather than potentially harmful peaks. They’re particularly worried about effects on the skin and eyes of bursts of 5G transmissions that may lead to short, harmful temperature spikes in exposed people. Still others say the standard does not account for particularly sensitive groups. In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics told the FCCthat its wireless guidelines do not adequately protect pregnant women and children. The group urged the FCC to draft new rules that reflect modern use patterns, and provide more disclosure to consumers.
Sharon Buccino, an environmental attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, has written, “the FCC’s standards address only one aspect of potential harm from electromagnetic radiation—heat. The current standards do not address other ways in which exposure to increasing electromagnetic radiation from wireless communications can harm human health, as well as the natural systems around us on which all life depends.”
To be sure, this matter is far from settled, and the issue remains the subject of considerable debate. Still, as an outsider, it feels to me that research about 5G health effects is relatively underfunded and that the concerns that have been raised seem significant enough to merit additional study.
The Portland, Oregon, City Council recently voted to ask the FCC to update its regulations. And, to his credit, US senator Richard Blumenthal (D–Connecticut) asked about scientific evidence on the health effects of 5G during a hearing a couple of months ago, titled Winning the Race to 5G and the Next Era of Technology Innovation in the United States. “I believe that Americans deserve to know what the health effects are,” Blumenthal said. “Not to prejudge what scientific studies may show. They deserve also a commitment to do the research on outstanding questions.“ Told there were no industry-funded studies on the health effects of 5G, Blumenthal said, “So, we are flying blind here on health and safety.” At least he’s asking.
This all feels very familiar. If we were wise, we’d figure this out before we go further. As Nathaniel Rich pointed out last summer in The New York Times Magazine, 30 years ago we had a chance to save the planet.