There have been lots of opinions going around social media about the correlation between 5G and coronaviruses, covid-19 to be specific. This is, of course, not a one of its kind as we did see similar opinions being shared when the world launched 3G and 4G. One social media user wrote: “Symptoms of 5G exposure include respiratory problems, flu-like symptoms (temperature rises, fever, headaches), pneumonia. Very much like the coronavirus.” The proponents of this opinion have varied lines of reasoning with some claiming that radiation “eats up” oxygen thus making us oxygen-deficient thus leading to the respiratory problems. Another group opines that 5G suppresses the immune system, thus making people more susceptible to catching the virus while another is of the opinion that the virus can be transmitted through the use of 5G technology.
Do any of these opinions hold water? To answer this question, I would like to request you to take a small journey with me into a brief understanding of radiation and how radiation interacts or affects various materials, humans included.
1803 is the year where our story begins; John Dalton, an English scientist first proposed the idea of the modern atomic theory in which we now know that every element is made of atoms. Scientists would later realize that the atom wasn’t the smallest but instead, was made up of protons, nucleus and electrons (there are smaller ones as at now). Physicists Henry Becquerel, Henri Curie, Marie Curie, Pierre Curie and Earnest Rutherford were studying radioactivity around the same time Thompson was studying electrons and cathode ray tubes (the CRTs powered the original TV sets we had some decades ago). In their study of radioactivity, we got to learn a lot of things about how various radioactive emissions interact with matter. In their study, there were alpha particles (positively charged and massive — nucleus of Helium atom), beta particles (negatively charged and light — electrons), gamma rays (neutrally charged and no mass — energy). Further studies showed us that these emissions had different but specific energies and that they could interact with matter differently. For instance, a small aluminum foil could stop beta emissions but gamma emissions required heavy and thick lead to stop. This is the first time we got to learn about how emissions interacted with matter and that the interaction was mostly a factor of the energy of the emission.
Around the same time, Physicists and Chemists were studying how light interacted with matter. In 1913, Physicist Niels Bohr summarized these findings by Rutherford into what we now know as the Bohr Model of the hydrogen atom. In his paper, Bohr suggested that electrons orbiting an atom did so only at specific energy levels (distances from the nucleus). He also noted that when electrons absorb energy, they become excited and jump to a higher energy level (farther away from the nucleus). Because they would be unstable, having jumped to a higher energy level, these electrons would later fall back to their original position; by so doing, they would lose the energy they had acquired. That energy would be emitted as light and because these energies were of specific values, the emitted light would also be of specific wavelengths. This is the concept of quantized energy levels and wavelengths and for this amazing discovery, Bohr was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics.
In 1924, Louis de Broglie showed that electrons could act both as particles and as waves. Young would later show this practically through the infamous double-slit experiment. This was an important observation that takes us into the next level of our history and study.
A body above 0K temperature has an associated emission at specific temperatures — this is the basic concept of black body radiation. The stars in the sky are modelled as black bodies. Our own star, the sun for instance, is a huge combustion chamber with hydrogen as its main source of fuel. With the high temperatures of the various burning elements in the sun, the sun emits radiation of varied wavelengths; one of the most familiar one being the visible light or what we simple call “light.” In Physics, however, the word light is used to describe the entire spectrum of radiation and this includes the following: radio waves, microwaves, infra-red, visible light, UV rays, X-Rays and Gamma Rays. In most cases, this spectrum is collectively referred to as Electromagnetic (EM) waves owing to their nature: an interaction of electric and magnetic fields. It’s important to note that EM radiation is not wholly man-made as most of us are made to think. Electromagnetic fields are present everywhere in our environment. Electric fields are produced by the local build-up of electric charges in the atmosphere and released with thunderstorms. Electromagnetic fields at low frequencies exist whenever a positive or negative electrical charge is present. The sun and stars, as we’ve mentioned, are natural sources of radiation, the lower end of which mostly reach us while the higher more dangerous ends are wholly absorbed by the earth’s magnetic field and rarely goes past the ionosphere and ozone layer.
The study of the nature of blackbody radiation was a hot topic that included lots of scientists from enthusiast of thermodynamics like Planck and Boltzmann to Physicists like Lenard and Einstein. Lenard, for instance, was doing an experiment in which he wanted to see the effect of shining light on an object — what would later be known as the photoelectric effect. In his experiment, Lenard showed that materials would emit electrons when a beam of light was shone on them but this wasn’t random. The kinetic energy of the emitted electrons was proportional to the wavelength of the light that was shone on the material. He also showed that every element had a specific limit below which no electrons could be emitted from it no matter the intensity of light shone on it — this is what is called work function of the material. In summary, the photoelectric effect showed us that:
- Different materials required different amounts of energy for electrons to be emitted from them.
- For energy level above the limit, the higher the photon energy of the incident light, the higher the kinetic energy of the emitted electrons
- At a specific photon energy of the incident light, the power/intensity of the incident light had no effect on the kinetic energy of the emitted electrons. However, more power meant that more electrons were emitted and hence higher current was observed.
These observations were inconsistent with the classical model of waves that scientists had previously proposed. In 1905, Albert Einstein realized that light was behaving as if it was composed of tiny particles (initially called quanta and later called photons) and that the energy of each particle was proportional to the frequency of the electromagnetic radiation that it was a part of. For this amazing and groundbreaking observation which proved Planck’s concept of quantized blackbody radiation and explained Lenard’s observations, Einstein was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1921. He and Millikan were able to mathematically express quantization of energy in electromagnetic radiation: E = hf (E — photon energy, f — frequency of radiation, h — Planck’s constant).
As highlighted above, we now know that electromagnetic radiation is composed of indivisible packets called “photons” that each carry a fixed amount of energy and momentum. As per Einstein’s observations, EM radiation can be considered both as a wave and as a particle. These particles are the photons and as we can see, they have quantized ie specific energies. Remember that quantized energies mean that they also have specific frequencies as well as wavelengths. The higher the frequency, the lower the wavelength and the higher the energy.
For the sake of understanding the next section, from now henceforth, let’s abandon the classical representation of electromagnetic waves and treat them as particles and these particles carry with them a specific energy and they are called photons. So how do these photons interact with other objects and most importantly, how do they interact with and affect human body?
As a wave, it is easy to understand these interactions by doing references to the visible light. They can be reflected (eg light on a mirror), they can be diffracted ie bent (eg light in water), they can be scattered ie made to spread in different directions, they can be absorbed. When they are absorbed, that is where we start to worry because in such a situation, they transfer their energy onto the material absorbing them eg our body tissues. So, what exactly happens when these particles are absorbed by another material?
Consider a classical world example and assume that this particle is a car. What happens when one car hits another car? It all depends on the size of the cars; if the car being hit is smaller, it will be moved. A moving trailer is huge ie has high momentum and hence high kinetic energy which means that when it hits a small car, the car will be pushed and rolled off the road or crushed completely. But when a car hits a trailer, the effect on the trailer might not be noticeable. The same applies to our quantum photons hitting other objects.
Particles absorb EM radiation as a whole number of photons and the absorption involves transfer of energy from the photon to the receiving material. This means that a substance that absorbs electromagnetic radiation does not absorb it at all energies, but instead only absorbs photons with certain energy levels determined by its composition. Various types of absorptions are in place based on the energy of the photon and the nature of the material. When absorbed by a free charged particle, the photon gives the particle additional kinetic energy which causes the particle to change its state of motion and this can be manifested either as heat or electric current. When absorbed by the conduction electrons that are free to move in an antenna, it pushes the electrons along the antenna causing measurable current; this is called radio reception and is how your mobile phone receives 5G transmitted signals (or any other for that matter). If the photon has very high energy and is absorbed by a bound charged particle, it can give the particle enough energy to set it free. This can be in either of two cases: the first one — ionization, which only occurs at very high photon energies (above a specific limit for every material — involves freeing an electron that was bound to an atom or small molecule. Due to the loss of an electron, this molecule becomes charged and reactive. In a living tissue like the human body, ionization can lead to lots of complications eg mutation, cancer and general radiation sickness. Where the electrons are loosely bound (though not in an atom), the radiation can also free and this is particularly important in photosynthesis in plants. If the energy of the photon is not high enough to set it free as described above, then the electron (eg in the human body tissue) will just become excited to a higher energy atomic or molecular state (remember Bohr Model described above). As we said, when these electrons gain more energy, they become unstable and so this energy has to be given away for them to be stable. Dissipative absorption, which is the most common, is where the energy absorbed by the electron is lost in the form of thermal energy ie heat. We have all seen this when you stay in sunlight (which is EM radiation) and you gain a lot of heat or in how microwave ovens heat up our food. In energy band transition, the photon gives the electron enough energy to make it to transition to another energy band. This is common in metals and semi-conductors and is the principle of working of solar panels. Other effects, not of importance to the purpose of this article include fluorescence, phosphorescence and vision. It is important to note that different materials absorb radiation differently. Some materials absorb certain wavelengths but not others; ferrites like iron are good absorbers of microwaves, for instance, due to their magnetic nature. In short, different materials have different absorbance; details of which are not particularly necessary for the mission of this writing.
The above paragraph is the most important part of this article with respect to the mission of this article. It talks about how our bodies and surroundings eg air (oxygen included) would interact with radiation. We have seen only two modes of interaction to be of interest to us: ionization and dissipative absorption. We have seen that ionization leads to serious health complications eg cancer while dissipative absorption merely leads to heating up of the tissues as we already are familiar with from sunlight. Now, how do the various bands of radiation interact with our surrounding? To answer this question, we have to go back to Planck and Einstein’s findings that said that photons are quantized energies. These energies can be described in various units eg Joules but for the purpose of this article, I will use a unit called electron volts (eV). An important aspect of photon energy is that it generally determines the penetrating ability of the radiation, as we’ve already seen. If the individual units of energy, photons or particles, have energies that exceed the binding energy of electrons in the matter through which the radiation is passing, the radiation can interact, dislodge the electrons, and ionize the matter. Materials of interest to us are the human body tissue and air (for us to prove which of these radiations have effect on our body tissues and air and eventually decide if 5G affects our body or oxygen we breath).
In order from the smallest to the largest, here is the radiation spectrum and their associated photon energy (maximum for the band):
- Ultra-High Frequency (300 MHz — 3000 MHz): used widely in mobile phone communications, Bluetooth and GPS. The maximum photon energy of the band is 1.2 micro eV (0.0000012 eV)
- Super High Frequency (3–30 GHz): used widely in satellite communications, Wi-Fi, microwave devices. This is also the band where most 5G devices run. The photon energy is 12 micro eV (0.000012 eV)
- Extra High Frequency (30 GHz — 300 GHz): used mostly in radio astronomy. The photon energy is 0.0012 eV.
Now that we have seen the energy levels of the microwaves and importantly, of the 5G band, let us see the energy levels of the visible light we receive daily from our light bulbs and the sun:
- Blue Light has photons of 2.77 eV
- Red Light has photons of 1.77 eV
We can see clearly here that the visible light itself has energy that is over a hundred thousand times more dangerous than the energy of the 5G band based on their ionization ability. It would then mean that before we are worried about 5G band, we should first have been worried about our light bulbs.
However, there is no need for us to be worried about the light bulbs and the 5G based on their ionization ability. The human body tissue requires at least 5eV to become ionized . As we have described above, photon energy is quantized and any energy below the required minimum cannot ionize the material. As for oxygen, the minimum energy required to ionize oxygen and hence lead to breathing problems stands at 12.0697 eV . As an addition (because I heard it mentioned in one of the videos circulating around, the first ionization energy of iron is 7.9 eV). Clearly, our 5G band falls below these limits (body tissue, oxygen, iron) by an extremely large margin. Visible light, Infra-Red also fall below this limit and hence cannot ionize air (oxygen) or iron — of course if this was the case, planet earth would be uninhabitable because we’ve had visible light from the beginning of time.
What about the power of the transmitted radiation? Some of us may ask. We’ve seen regulatory bodies putting limits on the amount of power that the electronic devices should dissipate. My iPhone for instance has a Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) of 1.6 Watts per kilogram. Doesn’t this mean that the power of radiation eg 5G has something to do with this? First, remember Lenard, Einstein and the photoelectric effect we described above. In the experiment, when Lenard increased the power of the radiation, there was no change in the energy of the emitted electrons. Even to infinite levels, increasing power has no effect on the energy of the radiation and as such, their ionizing ability remains the same. But here comes the next factor we highlighted: dissipative absorption.
In Einstein’s observation of Lenard’s experiments and Planck’s theories, the more the power, the more the number of emitted electrons and consequently, the more the current. In dissipative absorption, higher power means more photons being absorbed and converted to thermal energy (heat). What this means is that when non-ionizing radiation like those in 5G band are transmitted at higher power and are absorbed by our body, the only thing that increases is the heating effect. This is the basic operation of your microwave oven: the radiation is emitted at so high an energy that it is able to heat the food you put into it (through dissipative absorption by water molecules). The last factor that comes into play is exposure. For 5G band and any other non-ionizing radiation for that matter, intensity (power per unit area) as well as exposure (power over a period of time) are of importance. The more exposed you are to the radiation, the more heating effect it has to the body tissues.
What exactly is the amount of heating that should be considered dangerous? For as much as I know, basking in the sun (which is technically heating effect by dissipative absorption) has no known health issues (sun burns are largely as a result of UV radiation as opposed to visible light). So, using your mobile phone on any microwave band (be it 5G or 4G or any other), has a similar effect as basking in the sun ie all it does is heat your body tissues). But the heating effect from the power at which radio communication occurs is so low that you barely even notice it (as compared to how you’d notice the heating effect from the sun). Extreme heating can of course cause burns on the cells and that is why there are those SAR limits on every device just as a precaution.
Important to note is that the science community has done lots of research to determine the health effects of non-ionizing radiation. The aim is to determine if the radiations (and to what extent) are a health hazard ie can cause detectable impairment of the health of a person or its offspring. These effects could be behavioral, physiological or biochemical. As the mathematics of Einstein show us, as earlier described, these radiations only interact with tissues through the generation of heat. From documented research findings, microwaves can cause:
- heating of body surface,
- raised body temperature,
- cumulation of charge on body surface,
- disturbance of nerve and muscle responses.
- Static fields (magnetic) can however cause vertigo/nausea.
- At very low frequencies of (1MHz — 300 MHz), induction currents would lead to interference with the functioning of the central nervous system ,
- At frequencies of 10 GHz, the only observable effect is mild heating 
- At frequencies of 10GHz — 300 GHz, heating of superficial tissues is possible .
The body has a natural way of regulating its temperature and therefore these thermal effects aren’t considered health hazards. But here is an exception, if the exposure is extremely intense and exists for a continuously long period of time, then damage to tissues might occur through burning. It’s like placing your finger on a flame for a millisecond, you feel the pain of the heat for that moment but the body regulates and it disappears almost immediately. If your finger is tied to the flame continuously for a minute, then you definitely will end up with a burn. This is the same effect you notice when you concentrate light, through a lens, to a piece of paper causing it to burn or why laser beams are extremely dangerous and can destroy the eyes.
It is also worth noting that a lot of research has been done to determine if there exist other effects at non-thermal exposure levels but all the evidence so far provided is contradictory and unproven . Whereas the science community has a general consensus that there currently exists no convincing and consistent (what I call, “mathematically describable”) scientific evidence of adverse health effects (to worry about) caused by non-ionizing radiation like the ones used in 5G band, they also acknowledge the need for further research in this area. For this reason, regulatory bodies have gone ahead to lay out guidelines and limits that ensure that both known and predicted (yet unproven) possible health effects are mitigated by setting exposure limits to these radiations.
One overlooked fact is that 5G is actually more efficient than 4G and therefore less “dangerous” than 4G. 5G utilizes small cells and what this means is that every transmitter within a cell has to transmit radiation that travels a shorter distance — the shorter distance means we need less power (inverse square law) and therefore, 5G towers transmit at much less power than their predecessors. The low-powered 5G base stations actually transmits at < 6.3 W/port (as reference, your filament light bulb transmits higher energy radiation at 60W and is extremely close to you, about 2 meters away). The Small Cell structure of 5G actually reduces User Equipment power transmission by a factor of 8 (9dB) for a 50thPercentile of points near the small cell .
Can 5G cause covid-19? Absolutely not. Can 5G cause respiratory problems? We have seen mathematically that this is impossible. Can 5G cause flu-like symptoms? The answer is no. Can 5G transmit coronaviruses? Absolutely not (I failed to mention this but transmission of signals through EM waves is purely through modulation and requires a transmitter — receiver pair that “understand” each other. There is absolutely no way a virus can be modulated and transmitted via 5G and then be received by a human body receiver. To be honest, this is “technology” I would love to see with my own eyes, it is fairy tale like a Sci-Fi movie). Are non-ionizing radiation bands dangerous to our health and should we be worried? Conspiracy theorists say “yes” but the science community generally says “no” until proved otherwise by further research. A sensible mind would listen to the science community and not conspiracy theorists.