Does 5G Internet Really Give You Cancer? Here's What We Know and Don't Know

"5G is an emerging technology that hasn’t really been defined yet."

At the Mobile World Congress earlier in February, 5G technology was on display everywhere. Since the blazingly fast fifth-generation wireless broadband technology is set to be standard equipment on phones and other connected devices very soon, information — and disinformation — on the internet will only be more easily spread in the foreseeable future. Among the stories that are already spreading are concerns that 5G internet kills birds, causes cancer, or both.

A viral news story circulated in 2018 claiming that a mass die-off of birds occurred in the Netherlands after a test of a 5G network. Snopes rounded up the evidence on this claim, determining it was false. Mass bird die-offs are bizarre but not uncommon, and this particular one took place months after a 5G test — and not even in the same place.

The link between cell phone use and cancer is far more complicated than that.

4g vs 5g signals
How 4G antennas broadcast signals compared to how 5G antennas beam signals across a city.

People who promote the link between cell phones and cancer often cite a large-scale study conducted by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services.Inverse reported on the initial results of this study when they were released in 2016, but the final version came out at the end of 2018. In the study, researchers exposed more than 7,000 rats and mice to radiofrequency radiation (RFR) — that’s the type emitted by cell phones — over the course of multiple years, then analyzed the effects on the animals.

Importantly, their results are based on four categories of evidence that something may cause cancer: clear evidence (highest), some evidence, equivocal evidence, no evidence (lowest).

The researchers found “clear evidence” of malignant (cancerous) tumors in the hearts of male rats, as well as “some evidence” of malignant tumors in the brains of male rats and “some evidence” of a mix of benign and malignant tumors in the adrenal glands of male rats. “For female rats, and male and female mice, it was unclear if tumors observed in the studies were associated with RFR used by cell phones,” write the study’s authors. “This is also known as equivocal evidence.”

The studies from this project, which involved exposing many animal test subjects to RFR for two years at a time, seems pretty damning. But the caveats show that the findings aren’t directly applicable to humans.

Even though mice and rats share many biological similarities to humans in how their response to drugs and environmental hazards, they are not the same. Furthermore, they were locked in a small chamber and exposed to RFR for 9 hours a day, which isn’t representative of an average human’s experience.

Rats and mice are often, but not always, decent estimations of humans in the lab.
Rats and mice are often, but not always, decent estimations of humans in the lab.

Perhaps more importantly, this study was designed in the late 1990s, when 2G was the industry standard cell phone network technology, and 3G was just over the horizon. While the currently-available 4G and 4G-LTE technologies also use RFR, they modulate the signals differently. As a result, an NTP spokesperson tells Inverse, those study results won’t tell much about the health effects of 4G or 4G-LTE, and perhaps even less about the effects of 5G:

NTP studied 2G and 3G technologies only. Current wireless communication networks like 4G still use 2G and 3G technologies for voice calls and texting. 4G, 4G-LTE, and 5G networks were developed to support increased data needs like streaming video or instantly downloading email with attachments. These newer technologies use different methods of cell phone signal modulation than we used in the study. 5G is an emerging technology that hasn’t really been defined yet, and it differs dramatically from what we studied.

In many cases, the impact technology has on human health is not apparent for some time, so it’s not clear when, how, or if we will have reliable research on the effects of 5G on human health.

For his part, John Bucher, a senior scientist at the NTP, told reporters in 2018 when the studies came out he wouldn’t be changing his cell phone use.