A global pandemic brings out the best in people, such as communities rallying around the needy, as well as the worst, such as the hoarding of toilet paper. It also brings out the bizarre, with some people believing that the coronavirus deaths are actually being caused by 5G.
What seemingly started out as murmurs of a telecoms conspiracy ignited, quite literally, into action with a cell tower getting burnt down in the UK’s Midlands area. It is believed that this fire was deliberate and started by people who believe the rise of 5G is linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
The culprits have yet to be fingered for the alleged arson, but it has triggered a lot of head-scratching and exasperated disbelief as to why people believe 5G and COVID-19 are connected and if there’s even the slightest grain of truth behind the conspiracies.
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Toppling towers, troubling telecoms
Around 20 cell masts have been vandalised since April 2, according to The Guardian, indicating that there’s a growing pocket of concern around 5G towers and base stations, despite the majority of the masts that got attacked being 3G and 4G towers. All of these acts of vandalism thus far have been based on no evidence that links 5G to any health problems, let alone the coronavirus.
What might seem like abject stupidity to the more tech-savvy, has got UK mobile network providers worried and frustrated; so much so that EE, O2, Three and Vodafone posted a joint letter naturally condemning the vandalism, but also warning that damaging cell towers is more than just an inconvenience to them.
The world has gone mad.5G on fire? Another tower in flames in the UK as #COVID19 conspiracy theory spreads pic.twitter.com/DP6C8wULQkApril 8, 2020
The quartet of telcos noted that they all provide “essential connectivity” to the emergency services and the NHS, as well as helping people stay connected when isolated under lockdown. Yet their efforts are being hampered by the vandalizing of their cell towers, which disrupt critical infrastructure, all due to the spread of misinformation.
“There is no scientific evidence or any link between 5G and coronavirus. Fact,” the letter stated. “Not only are these claims baseless, they are harmful for the people and business that rely on the continuity of our services. They have also led to the abuse of our engineers, and, in some cases, prevented essential network maintenance from taking place.”
Conspiracy theorists might expect telecoms companies to say 5G is fine. But even with that in mind, there’s not a shred of evidence suggesting that 5G and COVID-19 are linked.
The UK government stepped in to debunk the 5G conspiracy theory, noting: “There is absolutely no credible evidence of a link between 5G and coronavirus.” And Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove described such the whole thing as "dangerous nonsense".
Anti-5G conspiracy theorists don’t all believe that 5G causes coronavirus, rather they think that the COVID-19 outbreak is really a ruse created to cover up that mobile phone signals are causing thousands of deaths worldwide. But again there’s no evidence to support such claims.
The International Commission on Non‐Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which assesses whether radio waves, and more recently 5G millimeter waves, can pose health risks, found there was no evidence to suggest 5G could hurt humans.
That conclusion was based off a seven-year study, with the ICNIRP chair Eric Van Rongen concluding that “5G technologies will not be able to cause harm when these new guidelines are adhered to”.
Those new guidelines mean the restriction of exposing whole parts of a body to frequencies above 6GHz. While 5G frequencies do go above 6GHz, the exposure limits aren’t likely to be breached in the operation of a mobile network. In a nutshell, putting a 5G connected smartphone to your ear doesn’t expose you to any harmful radiation.
Another anti-5G theory is that the frequencies can help the virus communicate and spread, as well as suppress people’s immune systems. Surprise, surprise, there’s no evidence to support that claim either.
COVID-19 is a droplet-based disease, meaning the virus spreads when people sneeze, cough, or exhale droplets that contain the virus that then get inhaled by other people, or sits on surfaces and transmitted to a person when they touch that surface and then their nose, mouth or eyes.
5G works using radio frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum, which simply cannot transport a virus. Even if such radio waves could carry generic material, 5G networks are in their infancy and have limited range, which is why larger numbers of cell towers and base stations are needed, meaning they couldn’t spread a virus as far as it has managed by itself.
If 5G was responsible for the coronavirus deaths, logic dictates that the US and UK, along with other nations that have been rolling out 5G would have been affected a lot earlier.
Coronavirus conspiracy cauldron
The nature of conspiracy theories means it’s difficult to pinpoint where this one came from. A report by Wired cites it was initially sparked by an interview Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws conducted with a general practitioner called Kris Van Kerckhoven.
The interview ran with the headline “5G is life-threatening, and no one knows it”, with Van Kerckhoven claiming that 5G is not only dangerous but could be linked to COVID-19. When asked if the 5G masts around Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak started, could be the cause of the pandemic, the GP said there might be a link, though he admitted he’d not fact-checked this.
There have been anti-5G conspiracy theorists and campaigners before the coronavirus, but the newspaper article galvanised them, and the claims spread like wildfire across social media. Het Laatste Nieuws pulled the article but by then it was too late and English translations of it were out in the wilds of the web.
Artikel verwijderd. Zegt weer genoeg. pic.twitter.com/AGOGpYdprRFebruary 2, 2020
From there 5G and coronavirus conspiracies gathered momentum, with bloggers, YouTubers, and so-called influencers jumping on the bandwagon. Many spread this baseless information claiming it as the truth behind COVD-19, with various far-right and anti-vaccination groups propagating the claims on social networks.
And when many people are stuck inside and thus likely to spend longer on social media, there’s a perfect storm for misinformation to flow.
For those with some technical knowledge or the common sense to fact-check spurious claims, the situation might seem amusing. But people with large online followings have served as influential beacons that transmitted the misinformation.
Even celebrities have got involved with actors Woody Harrelson and John Cusack, as well as boxer Amir Khan, sharing posts that reference 5G and coronavirus conspiracies. Khan even suggested that the coronavirus was man-made and being used to cull the global population, with lockdowns being used to provide cover for nations to roll out 5G.
The Hollywood actor John Cusack just blocked me for calling him a 5G conspiracy theorist.Had he not blocked me I would have replied that he shouldn't put a space before a question mark and he can't write '5G' properly. pic.twitter.com/XjdFFXROpAApril 7, 2020
Needless to say, there was no evidence to support any such claims. And given how COVID-19 has taken many nations by surprise, the notion that is was planned seems ever more ridiculous.
But when the coronavirus is dominating people's lives and the news, it’s no surprise that it becomes a discussion point with people coming up with outlandish theories to cope with the social and economic uncertainty the pandemic has caused.
Facebook, YouTube, and other technology companies are now taking action to cut out the spread of coronavirus misinformation, with WhatsApp even limiting the number of messages users can forward. But it looks like that action has come too late.
We’ve already starting to overhear people - at a safe distance - discuss the 5G coronavirus conspiracy when shopping for essentials. So despite there being zero evidence to link the two things, it’s doubtful that anti-5G conspiracies are going to dissipate anytime soon.
Is 5G dangerous?
The short answer to that is no. The longer answer is we don't know for sure, but 5G is likely to be harmless.
Cell-based telecoms are facilitated by radio waves on the low-end of the electromagnetic spectrum and produce non-ionising radiation that cannot damage the DNA inside cells, and thus aren’t harmful.
Millimetre-wave 5G uses higher frequencies that would be a cause for concern, but they are also non-ionising as they have longer wavelengths and don’t produce enough energy to damage cells directly.
"The only established hazard of non-ionizing radiation is too much heating," Kenneth Foster, a professor of bioengineering at Pennsylvania State University, told our sibling site Live Science. "At high exposure levels, radio frequency (RF) energy can indeed be hazardous, producing burns or other thermal damage, but these exposures are typically incurred only in occupational settings near high-powered radio frequency transmitters, or sometimes in medical procedures gone awry."
The World Health Organisation along with other public health bodies have all stated that exposure to non-ionising electromagnetic fields and radio waves aren’t a threat to human health.
However, as 5G networks grow people will be exposed to an increase in radio waves. While this is considered by many organisations and experts to be safe, some are worried.
The 5G Appeal, set up by a group of scientists and doctors in 2017, called on the European Union to halt the rollout of 5G, citing concerns that more research into the potential effects of the technology on human health and the environment was needed. As of April 7, some 332 scientists and doctors have signed the appeal.
But the EU rejected the appeal citing the EMF radiation exposure limits already in place were suitable for 5G and that “scientific opinions have not provided any scientific justification for revising the exposure limits”. The EU noted there have been many peer-reviewed studies that show 5G doesn’t pose a risk to humans, and no compelling evidence to the contrary.
In short, more research into the effects of 5G on humans and the environment will dig deeper into the effects of 5G, but as it stands there’s nothing to prove that it is harmful. And its link to the coronavirus is utterly unsubstantiated.