Are the 5G storm clouds circling the port industry?

5G technology The new 5G technology is an IoT dream: could it turn into a nightmare? Image: Stevie Knight/ Jürgen Diermaier

There’s a storm brewing over 5G’s promise to link up anything and everything, writes Stevie Knight.

The new 5G technology is an Internet of Things (IoT) dream: people, assets, machines – in fact millions of devices can be simultaneously connected and return real-time data.

The supply-chain possibilities are almost endless and run from advanced cargo tracking to remote operation of near-shore vessels. Certainly, the port industry is staring at real advantages.

Ericsson and mobile service provider China Unicom created a 5G ‘smart harbour’ at Qingdao, which they say demonstrated labour cost savings of up to 70% over a standard, fully automated facility.

Equipment providers like iSAM and Kalmar are already trialling 5G applications in the belief it will be the industrial standard of the future. But is it all safe?

Yes, says the US’ National Cancer Institute. They say that while the higher-frequency electromagnetic waves – gamma and xrays - are known to damage DNA and cells, this is different to the non-ionizing part of the spectrum which includes magnetic fields from electric power lines and appliances, microwaves, Wi-Fi, plus, of course, mobile phones and masts.

Others are more equivocal, even about the current range of telecom frequencies which inhabit the 800MHz to 2.6GHz part of the spectrum. A study carried out by the US National Toxicology Programme (NTP) showed there were indeed “statistically significant increases” in tumours found in rats exposed to the 900MHz wavelengths.

However, John Bucher, NTP’s senior scientist says: "The levels and duration of exposure to radiofrequency radiation (RFR) were much greater than...people experience with even the highest level of cell phone use, and exposed the rodents' whole bodies. So, these findings should not be directly extrapolated to human cell phone usage."

Despite this, one of the senior toxicologists overseeing the NTP study, Ron Melnick, has other views. Melnick, now retired, explains the study showed that as many as one in twelve of the brains or hearts of the exposed rats were affected by tumours or precancerous lesions. A truly staggering figure “that’s just been dismissed without scientific justification”.

Moreover, he says the chief criticism of the study is misleading: “Yes, the total amount your body receives is divided by your weight... but if you’re holding the phone to your head, then what you’re really concerned about is the radiation to that specific location, near the brain.”

So, what about the impact on people? “The mantra repeated by most of the telecom industry is that damage only occurs by heating effects. If there is no measurable heating, then there cannot be damage,” says Professor Beatrice Golomb of University of California, San Diego, adding, “therefore the permissible limits have been derived from levels that increase temperature".

However, both Melnick and Golomb’s research contradict this: “The prevailing assumption at the start of the NTP study was that there isn’t enough energy at cell-phone frequencies to break chemical bonds or cause DNA damage,” says Melnick, adding: “That assumption is clearly wrong, with results showing increased tumour incidences, increased DNA strand breaks in the brains of exposed rats and mice, reduced birth weights and cardiomyopathy.”

It’s a controversial subject. While some studies conclude no correlation, there is now a tilt toward ‘be cautious about cellphone use’ advice and some researchers are adamant that evidence supports a health impact, including Golomb.

She explains that the list of common symptoms includes sleeplessness and dizziness, irritability, depression and cognitive impairment – and though it won’t hit everyone equally, “as with all toxins, there will be a number who are more severely affected”.

Those arguing against electromagnetic radiation (EMR) say it does not even take having a mobile strapped to your head. Reports include sensitivity close to masts, smart meters or other connected technologies.

This includes US attorney, Dafna Tachover, the force behind the We Are the Evidence advocacy group which, she says, “intends to expose the suppressed epidemic”. Her own story is like many others who have, according to Tachover, been diagnosed with EMR injury.

Further, she says the effects are cumulative: “We are now exposed to levels of radiation from wireless devices - man-made modulated frequencies at levels which are a million and more times higher than those our body evolved to tolerate - and prolonged exposure to this radiation has clear effects”.

The huge variety of complaints cannot just be put down to people’s imagination. Golomb’s own studies have shown that EMR-induced oxidative stress, which results in the prevalence of highly-reactive free radicals in the body, can damage membranes, disrupt the blood-brain barrier, compromise blood flow, injure mitochondria, damage the myelin sheath and trigger a cascade of autoimmune issues.

According to Golomb, the link is “cemented” by evidence in the genes of people experiencing symptoms: “People cannot manipulate their genes in response to suggestibility,” she points out. Additionally, urine samples show consistently depressed levels of melatonin – an antioxidant the body uses to fight EMR damage.

Moreover, if there are issues they stand to be magnified by the 5G roll out. Professor Om Gandhi of the University of Utah points out that the physics of higher frequencies demand a vastly increased number of base stations to create the necessary connectivity, and Tachover adds that in the US “the aim is to connect 20bn more devices as part of the Internet of Things – IoT – so anything and everything will have an antenna”.

There are implications for ports and terminals with their sheds, container stacks and quay cranes as both Melnick and Gandhi point out, because EMR signals bounce around metal surfaces. According to Gandhi, multiple reflections can result in exposure from more than one direction: “Rat studies showed that a subject could be exposed to twice the level of radiation than directly coming from the emitter.”

More, even apparently low levels of radiation need not be that safe “as modulation in the signal means that you may have a jackhammer effect, with the peaks rather than the average determining the level of damage,” adds Golomb.

Most of the research so far has centred on the effects of 3G and 4G, so could 5G be less of a problem? Possibly. According to Gandhi’s research the higher, millimetre wavelengths like those to be utilised by 5G networks “tail off faster than the lower frequencies”. His work with very short wavelengths of the kind proposed by some 5G providers shows that much of it “is likely to be absorbed by clothing... and penetration into the body appears to be limited to the skin”.

However, others point to studies which suggests that the skin can transmit the damage and Gandhi cautions against drawing any conclusions one way or the other – yet.

Unfortunately, even if these new frequencies do prove less hazardous, that is not the end of the problem. According to Tachover, 5G isn’t a single technology, “it’s an infrastructure, concept... and that covers a lot more than just those so-called 5G millimetre wavelengths”.

She underlines that much of the 5G infrastructure is not quite what it seems. US providers are installing 4G ‘small cell’ antennae under the 5G banner. Further, Peter Linder of Ericsson has stated that “carrier aggregation” will likely be the best solution as “you can take a part of high-band spectrum and combine it with midor low-band spectrum, combining the capacity power”.

As Golomb says, “We’re not getting rid of 4G, we’re just adding to it. Evidence indicates that when multiple frequencies are present, toxicity may be synergistic.” She continues: “Every time we roll-out new frequencies, we see yet another subgroup of affected people.”

So, why aren’t we taking the effects of 5G, and possibly all EMR technologies, seriously?

Many EMR critics say the industry is selecting what it wants to hear, drawing parallels with the tobacco giants. According to Tachover, the ‘no-harm’ findings came from studies funded by vested industries or had other conflicts of interest.

Golomb added how bias has been documented, with study results depending on who is paying the bill. Others are more cynical, saying that the big players want to discredit research that counters their ambitions. Interesting, there’s a groundswell against them. In 2017, over 200 scientists signed an appeal submitted to the EU calling for a moratorium on 5G.

Melnick and Golomb say that industry needs to hold back. So far that has not happened, says Melnick, adding: “If it’s safe, show us the evidence.”

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