Tom McKay 3/13/19

City officials in Portland, Oregon are preparing a Wednesday vote to oppose the rollout of next-generation 5G networks in the city, Inverse reported on Tuesday. The move, which is supported by Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Amanda Fritz, is motivated in part because of disputes with the federal government over telecommunications rules, but also because they believe that the technology may have undiscovered risks to human health—a fear that many experts say is unfounded.

According to KATU News, the Federal Communications Commission voted last year to impose new restrictions on how city governments could regulate transmitters on city property, as well as capped franchise fees on them at $270 per year when some cities currently charge $3,000. Wheeler said this could cost Portland $9.5 million a year in lost revenue and characterized the FCC rules as “something of a land grab against local infrastructure, like telephone poles, where these wireless nodes will be connected,” KATU News wrote.

“Wireless companies in the U.S. say they’ll have to install about 300,000 new antennas, close to the total number of cell towers built over the past three decades,” the proposed resolution states. “This substantial increase in cell towers deployed in communities means greater contact with them.”

The resolution also cites research that could mean “radio frequency emissions generated by wireless technologies could contribute to adverse health conditions such as cancer,” and argued that the FCC has not done studies to see whether exposure to 5G transmitters could endanger human health.

As Inverse wrote, this is complicated: A decade-long National Toxicology Program (NTP) study using over 7,000 rats and mice as test subjects released in 2018 did find “clear evidence” 2G and 3G radio frequency radiation (RFR) caused “tumors in the hearts of male rats,” as well as “some evidence of tumors” in the brains and adrenal glands of male rats. But it also concluded it was unclear whether tumors observed in the female rats, or any of the tumors in the mice, were caused by the RFR.

In a press release, the NTP also acknowledged the study exposed the rats and mice to doses of RFR that were, at a minimum, “equal to the maximum local tissue exposure currently allowed for cell phone users,” which “rarely occurs with typical cell phone use.” In some cases, the rats and mice were exposed to four times currently allowed limits on maximum tissue exposure to RFR. The rats and mice were also exposed to RFR across their whole bodies, whereas cell phones are typically “exposed in specific local tissues close to where they hold the phone,” NTP senior scientist John Bucher said in the release.

Android Authority wrote last year that the frequencies the rats and mice were exposed to far exceed anything likely to be encountered by a human. The site also pointed out that the “FDANational Cancer Institute, and FCC all note that the overwhelming evidence points to the safety of cellphones and technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi—even after considering the study’s results.” However, the site also noted that more research on 5G, the goal of an ongoing petition by a group of European scientists, is welcome.

In another review of the available evidence in Popular Science, McGill Office for Science and Society physician Christopher Labos and University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus of bioengineering Kenneth Foster were skeptical that current evidence suggests any notable public health risk from wireless signals. However, Foster did caution that other risks from wireless technology, like car crashes from distracted drivers, are very real.

Inverse additionally noted that 2G and 3G have since phased out of widespread use—potentially making the NTP findings no longer relevant—and that any FCC assessment of possible health risks of 5G would “almost certainly” take so long as to make 5G obsolete:

These technology standards, which use the same radiation frequency range as 4G, modulate the signal differently. 2G and 3G may have been the state-of-the-art when the study began, but since large-scale studies on cancer take a long time to identify statistically significant effects, the technology has undergone multiple evolutions in the intervening time. So as Inverse previously reported, it’s nearly impossible to say whether these results will apply to 5G hardware.

Since the available research doesn’t address 5G, the Portland City Council’s resolution demands that the FCC embark on another such research project to assess the health effects of 5G. Presumably, it would take just as long to conduct another study on the hypothesized connection between 5G and cancer, but by that time, the industry will almost certainly have moved on to 6G — or 7G.

That said, it may be easier in the future to conduct these types of studies. The NTP press release stated it is “building smaller RFR exposure chambers that will make it easier to evaluate newer telecommunications technologies in weeks or months, rather than years.”

The Mayo Clinic, one of the U.S.’s foremost academic medical centers, concluded in an article in December 2018 that studies have found conflicting results and “there’s no consensus about the degree of cancer risk—if any—posed by cellphone use”:

After evaluating several studies on the possibility of a connection between cellphones and glioma and a noncancerous brain tumor known as acoustic neuroma, members of the International Agency for Research on Cancer — part of the World Health Organization — agreed that there’s limited evidence that cellphone radiation is a cancer-causing agent (carcinogenic). As a result, the group classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to people.

… It often takes many years between the use of a new cancer-causing agent and the observation of an increase in cancer rates, such as with tobacco and lung cancer. At this point, it’s possible that too little time has passed to detect an increase in cancer rates directly attributable to cellphone use.

“We are asking the federal government to please engage and use public health resources to study the long-term health impacts, or potential health impacts, of 5G,” Wheeler told KATU News.

“It may well be there are no long-term health impacts of rolling out 5G,” Wheeler added. “But until the public has some degree of confidence that the science supports the rollout of this technology, there is always going to be that question circulating of whether or not this is healthy for the public.”

Whatever comes out of the vote on Wednesday is unlikely to impact the FCC’s course of action, unless it somehow convinces other cities to sign on. As the Portland resolution states, “Local governments are unable to reject the installation of 5G due to health concerns.”

[Inverse/KATU News]