Petitions asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to block the roll out of 5G in California neighborhoods have popped up on social media in recent weeks, raising concern that the super-fast fifth generation of mobile broadband will cause adverse health effects like cancer and DNA damage.
One Change.org petition asking Newsom to stop the installation of 5G in schools had more than 3,700 signatures as of Sunday.
“I believe that our local government, representatives and Gov. Newsom have a very serious responsibility to make decisions with the health and well being of the citizens of California always in mind,” said campaign organizer Corissa Furr. “And the fact that he is allowing the installation of 5G in all of our schools right now, with zero evidence that this technology is safe, is a disservice to all of us.”
5G is the next generation of wireless technologies that the communications industry believes will power the economy through faster-than-ever coverage in all corners of the U.S. California education and government officials generally have embraced the technology and encouraged wireless companies to offer it.
Wireless companies like Verizon and AT&T have already rolled out 5G for consumers and business customers. T-Mobile and Sprint’s merger was approved Thursday in California on the condition that the new company provide 5G wireless services that can compete with AT&T and Verizon.
Verizon plans to expand 5G nationally to 100 schools by next year as part of its Verizon Innovative Learning initiative in under-resourced schools, Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato said. AT&T was the first in 2019 to offer 5G mobile service in several U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose.
“We continue to test and turn up 5G in additional markets, and we’re excited to begin to unveil the revolutionary new capabilities 5G will offer to consumers and businesses,” said AT&T spokeswoman Ali Davis. “We’ll share more in the coming weeks as our 5G network becomes more broadly available to consumers in new areas.”
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More than 150,000 cell sites and towers have already been installed in the United States, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, and by 2026, that number is predicted to grow beyond 800,000.
So is there reason to worry?
Yes and no, experts say.
Access to 5G is a good thing, said Brandon Brown, an epidemiologist and associate professor in the Center for Healthy Communities at UC Riverside School of Medicine, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, when people are relying on internet access to work from home.
“If anything,” Brown said, “5G is helping us.”
Cell phone range radiation falls on the lower end of the electromagnetic spectrum in what’s called non-ionizing radiation. Unless humans are exposed to “intense, direct” amounts of this energy, the lower frequencies don’t cause harm, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The people petitioning Newsom worry that 5G technology will use radiation frequencies beyond current health recommendations. Cell sites are generally installed in close clusters to street lamps or light poles, raising worry over increased and nearby radiation exposure in neighborhoods.
In response to this concern, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection has updated its guidelines and determined 5G technologies do not pose a significant health risk.
The American Cancer Society also notes that these lower frequencies “do not directly damage the DNA inside cells” like radiation from x-rays, gamma rays and UV light, which can cause cancer. While radiation waves can heat up body tissue, the organization says, the “levels of energy used by cell phones and towers are much lower.”
Still, many organizations, including the CDC and the World Health Organization, say more research and time is needed to definitively reject claims linking long-term cell radiation exposure to adverse health effects like cancer.
Some advocates argue that, until then, 5G’s roll-out should be postponed.
“We don’t have the evidence yet one way or another of whether it’s safe or not,” said Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “It’s meaningless to say there’s no evidence of harm if there’s no research. It’s like saying you have a new drug, there’s no research on it, there’s no evidence of harm, so everyone should be able to take it.”
Moskowitz said the $1 billion telecommunications lobbying industry has obscured what for him are scientific questions to determine the risk of some wireless services.
Newsom’s office did not answer questions about the petitions.
California Department of Education spokeswoman Cynthia Butler said the agency is committed to “addressing connectivity issues” and ensuring students have technological devices needed to complete school work.
“We do know that low-income, rural and disadvantaged schools have long lacked resources, and it’s no coincidence that we have achievement gaps in these areas that existed before COVID-19,” Butler said.