Dr. Eric van Rongen is vice chair at the International Commission on Non‐Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), the independent scientific body in charge of setting limits on exposure to non-ionizing radiation.
He helped to update the guidelines on exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields that also pertain to 5G, the fifth generation technology standard for cellular networks that's making our smartphones and wireless devices upload and download faster than ever. The new technology has been met with a number of conspiracy theories circulating online, which van Rongen says have no basis in science.
We are independent scientists reviewing all of the scientific literature about 5G.
I'm a radiobiologist by training, and I've been working on non-ionizing radiation for the past 28 years. I'm employed by the Health Council of the Netherlands, and I'm currently vice chair of the ICNIRP and have been a member of the main commission for eight years. It started as a committee of a professional organization (the International Radiological Protection Association, or IRPA) and developed into an independent entity in 1992. We develop and disseminate science-based advice on limiting exposure to non-ionizing radiation.
Radiation is a very loaded term, and it's something that people consider to be scary because they associate the word radiation with ionizing radiation — that's the type of radiation associated with nuclear energy that we've seen in Chernobyl and other disasters.
The kind of radiation we're talking about with 5G has nothing to do with that. It doesn't result in adverse health effects like with ionizing radiation, and there's no solid evidence that any other effects than heating may result from exposure to these types of radiofrequency fields.
What we do is we evaluate the scientific literature. Basically, we're looking at all of the research other people have done and reviewing their findings. We had some additional questions that our Japanese colleagues answered by doing their own modeling studies and publishing them so that we could refer to them.
Exposure to 5G radiation is not going to give us cancer or spread COVID-19.
We started working on these new guidelines some five years ago, long before the conspiracy theories and health concerns about 5G began circulating. The guidelines hadn't been updated since 1998, so we decided to look at the current state of the science.
The 5G technology is not too dissimilar from 3G and 4G that's been in use for almost 20 years. The main differences are that it uses a different language for communication between the mobile devices and the network, and frequencies that haven't been seen before in mobile telecommunications — around 26 gigahertz.
That's a very high frequency, but the fact that it's a high frequency doesn't mean that it's a more dangerous frequency. Radiation from the 5G frequency won't penetrate the body much deeper than the outer layers of the skin. It will probably have much less of an effect, if any, on the body than the lower frequencies that mobile telecommunication systems have used in the past.
Higher frequency means shorter waves and a greater intrinsic energy difference. If you were to go much higher up in the spectrum to ionizing radiation, then that's when you have a problem. That sort of radiation has such high intrinsic energy that it's capable of breaking chemical bonds and damaging DNA chromosomes, which can result in diseases like cancer. To be clear, this is something that can't happen with the non-ionizing radiation that comes from 5G.
There have also been suggestions that 5G is behind the coronavirus pandemic, but it's simply not possible for electromagnetic fields to spread anything except energy — especially not particles like viruses. This means there's absolutely no way it can spread COVID-19. Likewise, there's no evidence that exposure to radiofrequency fields such as 5G can reduce the immune system's capacity to deal with external pathogens and increase your chances of getting the virus.
The guidelines are clear, and phone companies use them to set limits on our devices.
The 2020 guidelines provide limits to the amount of energy that a phone or any other device may transmit to any body part. For the human head, the maximum amount of energy that's allowed is two watts per kilogram, and for our bodies, it's 0.08 watts per kilogram. Smartphones have been devised to use lower energy depositions.
That's a very limited amount of heat. It's been calculated that if you're exposed to a mobile phone working at maximum power, resulting in two watts per kilogram energy deposition to the head, that the temperature increase in the brain would not be more than 0.1 degrees centigrade.
That's completely within the natural variation of your body temperature, so it won't hurt you at all. It's not enough to have any effects such as dehydration or heat stress, or exacerbate existing medical conditions like cardiovascular disease.
The heat level doesn't accumulate if you're on the phone for a lengthy amount of time. What this means is that the level of energy won't result in any appreciable heating of the brain or other tissues in the body. It's a safe level of exposure — 0.08 watts per kilogram is roughly the heat equivalent to the body of drinking a cup of hot tea every two hours.
People are scared by a lot of changes that're happening in the world right now.
I think the reason that there's so much disinformation about 5G is that it's something new, and that can scare people.
The system won't only be used for mobile telecommunications, but also for all kinds of other applications like self-propelling cars. From a technical point of view, there's also a need for a better and faster system. The technology is being advertised by the phone companies on a large scale because they wanted money out of it, but it hasn't really been explained well to the public.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, people are tying things together that have no connection. I think we're finding that it's easy to scare people, and a climate of fear is a helpful thing to those who are concerned about being exposed to radiation or want to promote conspiracies.
We need to counteract conspiracy theories by providing clear information.
In order to try and stop conspiracy theories spreading online, we need to give people proper information about what 5G is and what it does. We should also give the public a better indication of what their exposure level will be, and show how it won't be much different from what we have been exposed to in the past from 3G and 4G systems.
The science is really straightforward — there's simply no solid evidence that anything other than a small amount of body heating may result from exposure to 5G radiofrequency fields.