Crossed lines on wireless technology

Critics, advocates clash at House committee meeting over health risks — if any — of 5G

A 5G phone tower: does it represent death from above or is it just unsightly? (Wikimedia Commons/Steve Kazella)

A 5G phone tower: does it represent death from above or is it just unsightly? (Wikimedia Commons/Steve Kazella)

By Ted Cox

CHICAGO — Critics and advocates of the looming 5G phone technology clashed over the health risks — if any — of the microwaves they run on Thursday at a state House committee hearing in Chicago.

“Your cellphone is giving you cancer,” said Paul Heroux, a scientist at McGill University in Montreal specializing in the health effects of electricity and electromagnetic fields. “This radiation is not as innocuous as the (Federal Communications Commission) would have you believe.”

“In my view, there’s no danger in 4G or 5G,” countered Eric Swanson, a physicist at the University of Pittsburgh.

They testified at a subject-matter hearing held Thursday at the Bilandic Building in Chicago by the House Cybersecurity, Data Analytics, & Information Technology Committee under state Rep. Jaime Andrade Jr. of Chicago. He said the panel had received “hundreds” of letters on the topic, but that one 5G advocate had called the hearing “a dog and pony show.”

“I don’t think this is a dog and pony show,” Heroux said, adding that “all electromagnetic radiation is connected to higher rates of all kinds of cancer.”

Swanson, however, pointed out that, unlike nuclear radiation, most electromagnetic radiation is safe and “familiar to you as light.”

The New York Times attempted to debunk the controversy a month ago as “The 5G Health Hazard That Isn’t.” It pointed out that 5G — just being introduced to replace the 4G networks most cellphones now run on — runs at the high end of what’s considered radio waves in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Swanson allowed that, from the top frequency level down in that overall electromagnetic spectrum, gamma rays and X-rays are undeniably dangerous, but then comes ultraviolet light — which causes tanning and, yes, cancer upon prolonged exposure of the skin over years — visible light, infrared light, and then the radio-wave spectrum, with 5G phones coming in below the frequency level of an airport scanner and above that of TV and radio signals.

Towers running 5G send out stronger signals over shorter distances, but according to Swanson they also use less power than 4G towers, so the effect on someone standing directly below them is about the same.


“In my view, there’s no danger in 4G or 5G.”

Pitt physicist Eric Swanson (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Insisting that constituted no risk, Swanson compared it the “power-line fiasco,” in which high-tension power lines were previously believed to cause cancer and other health problems until that was debunked by extensive research.

Heroux, however, pointed to how Brussels had recently put plans for its 5G network on hold “based on expected health effects.” He added, “I think it is unwise to deploy this.”

He dismissed the lack of a legal record on the subject, saying, “I know more lawyers than I know people” and that they’re eager to start filing suits once the medical record shows a link between 5G cellphone use and health woes like cancer.

“Where are all the lawsuits?” Swanson said. “They’re not there because the science is not there.”

Heroux urged a return to fiber optics and wired connections to desktop and laptop computers, saying they’re much faster than wireless. “We don’t need to download 3D movies on the bus,” he added.

Yet James Carlini, a consultant with roots in technology going back to the creation of Chicago’s 911 system, pooh-poohed that. “Broadband connectivity is a huge issue in our lives,” he said, for business and for personal use. “I want to be able to connect anywhere, and you can’t do that with fiber optics.” He doubted if U.S. citizens were willing to give up their cellphones and computer tablets.

Beth Cooley, spokeswoman for CTIA — The Wireless Association, said the industry is involved in 221,000 jobs statewide, with $22.9 billion in gross domestic product. She said Illinois has 13 million wireless devices, a million more than its population. She said 5G is 100 times faster than 4G, and that demand for the new technology is being driven by consumers, not by the industry trying to sell trendy newfangled products, as Heroux suggested.

Kimberly Walker, of the grassroots group Stop 5G Chicago, nonetheless said she was concerned about the effects the cellphone waves could have on her children playing outside, and she pointed out that Swanson was brought in as a paid witness for CTIA. “We need to stop this from moving out, from moving out to the state of Illinois,” she said.

“We don’t know for sure the impacts of 5G,” Heroux said, and while that seemed justification for critics to oppose 5G expansion, it was equally strong as an argument for advocates to say there was no valid reason to stop it.

“We’re always willing to hear all sides and see what’s going on,” Andrade said afterward. He said the hearing was scheduled after constituents had asked other state representatives about the subject. “I’m sure we’ll have other meetings,” he added. But he also pointed out that the FCC figures to be calling the shots on 5G as a technological issue that transcends state boundaries. “We really don’t have the jurisdiction,” he said. “So I think this is more to just let people hear about it.”