Fact-checking Nigerian politician’s claims about new mobile phone tech: Is radiation from 5G ‘10,000 times’ that from 3G?
Nigeria’s lawmakers have urged the federal government to delay any planned deployment of 5G wireless technology as they investigate if it has any harmful effects on health.
Reacting to the senate’s 5 May 2020 decision, Martin Onovo, a presidential candidate in the 2015 elections, made a number of claims about the technology.
Onovo, who is also an engineer, was speaking on Nigerian news channel Plus TV. We looked at two claims directly related to 5G.
Contacted by Africa Check for his evidence for this, Onovo would only confirm that he had made the claims in question.
In the TV interview, he said that such levels of radiation could “cremate people” and cause cancer.
5G is the fifth generation, or wireless standard, of mobile networking technology. There have been four previous generations, each an improvement on the previous one. These are referred to as 1G (the first generation), 2G, 3G and 4G. (For more details on this, read our factsheet on 5G technology.)
Electromagnetic radiation is a form of energy transfer through space, as waves. It is most familiar to us as visible light, but there are other frequencies that are invisible to humans. These include radio waves, commonly used by mobile networks, radio and television broadcasts and in navigation.
We asked experts if the claim that radiation from 5G is 10,000 times that from 3G is correct.
“The short answer is no,” Kenneth Foster, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, told Africa Check. His research interests include studying how electromagnetic fields interact with the human body.
Foster said that while the frequency used by 5G is higher than current mobile phone systems, “it is not likely that their signal levels will be very different from present day mobile networks”.
‘No basis to claim mobile phone signals of any kind harmful,’ says expert
Mobile phone networks have to comply with national exposure limits, which in nearly all countries are based on those of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection.
The Germany-based commission is the body behind international guidelines on exposure to radiation.
“The limits are designed to protect against all known hazards of radiofrequency energy,” Foster said, adding that signals from mobile phone base stations “are invariably very far below these limits”.
“There is no basis to claim that mobile phone signals of any kind are harmful, and no basis to claim that 5G signals are more harmful than those from earlier generation mobile phones.”
While more studies will be done as the technology becomes more common, current research on 5G signal levels shows low exposure levels, Foster said.
He directed us to research from the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom. Recently updated in April 2020, it found that the highest radiation levels at 22 sites where 5G technology had been implemented were “0.039% of the maximum set out in the international guidelines”.
When signals such as 2G and 3G were included, the highest levels were 1.5% of the guidelines. More research is underway, the regulator said.
5G claims ‘unsubstantiated’
Dr Eric Van Rongen, the vice chair of the commission, agreed.
“No, this [claim] is not correct. From what is known from limited measurements around the world, the actual exposure from 5G systems will not differ appreciably from that of 3G or 4G systems,” he told Africa Check.
5G and other cellphone networks belong to the lowest frequency-lowest energy spectrum of radiofrequency radiation, Van Rongen said. (Note: For more on the electromagnetic spectrum, which is like a map of the various frequencies at which electromagnetic radiation is transmitted, see our factsheet).
In an 11 May statement, Nigeria’s communications commission said there is currently no deployment of 5G in Nigeria. It said that in November 2019, it approved a three month trial of the technology and this has been concluded.
Onovo claimed he knows people who are electrosensitive. For them, exposure to radiation from telecommunication masts “offsets their entire system and makes them very sick”.
He said: “This thing is very harsh to people who are very electrosensitive and we are not sure how many they are in the population. What if half of our people are electrosensitive? And in two, three years all of them have cancer?
“How do you treat them …[what] if you have 30 million cancer patients from 5G?” (Note: Nigeria’s most recent population estimate was 193 million in 2016.)
What does being electrosensitive mean?
“‘Electrosensitivity’ refers to nonspecific symptoms, such as headaches, that some people report when they consider themselves exposed to electromagnetic fields of various types,” Prof Kenneth Foster of the University of Pennsylvania told Africa Check.
These fields could be from fluorescent bulbs, mobile phones and base stations, or wifi. “The symptoms are entirely self reported and scientific tests have not been able to link actual exposures to the symptoms,” Foster said.
(Note: For more on electrosensitivity, see this factsheet from the World Health Organization.)
Dr Eric van Rongen from the commission on non-ionizing radiation, echoed this.
“There are many studies on self-proclaimed electrosensitive people, using several frequencies that are going to be used by 5G, or that are close to 5G frequencies. In none of these studies has a relation been found between radio frequency exposure and the symptoms these people attribute to such exposure.”
|What about a risk of cancer from 5G?
There is no conclusive risk of cancer from 5G, Kenneth Foster, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, told Africa Check.
He noted that in 2013 the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified radiofrequency fields as a “possible” human carcinogen. This was based mainly on research on diseases in humans, or epidemiology studies, some of which reported associations between the long term use of cell phones and brain cancer, he said.
“This designation indicates a level of suspicion, but not the conclusion, that radiofrequency fields actually cause cancer. The IARC considered that there is ‘limited evidence’ from human studies, and ‘limited evidence’ from animal studies,” said Foster.
“There is no evidence that exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields from masts is related to cancer,” said Dr Eric Van Rongen, the vice chair of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection.
“There are some studies on mobile phone users that claim such relation, but many more that don’t and overall the evidence for a causal relation is considered by the commission to be not substantiated.”
UPDATE (20/05/2020). We have edited a comment from Prof Foster to clarify that it was in regard only to mobile phone base station signals and their compliance to international limits, and not signals from mobile phones themselves.
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