04/19/2019

The Future Of 5G

33:37 minutes

a young black woman in a yellow shirt using a smartphone on a subway train. in the background other passengers are using their phones
Credit: Shutterstock

Last week, President Trump announced a new initiative to push forward the implementation of 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity for smartphones and other devices. Under the plan, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will auction off sections of high-frequency radio spectrum, and pour more money into rural broadband connectivity—all in the name of winning an international race to build wireless networks that could be up to 100 times faster than the current generation, 4G LTE.

How is this faster speed possible, and how quickly will it become accessible to consumers? Washington Post technology reporter Brian Fung explains the innovations that would enable greater rates of data transmission—plus the current progress of both the U.S. and international rollout. (Read an F.A.Q. on what 5G is all about with Fung below.)

But Harold Feld, a lawyer and consumer advocate, says not everyone will benefit equally from 5G as plans currently stand—including rural communities.

One of the top technology candidates for 5G relies on higher frequencies and bringing more smaller-signal base stations much closer to the people using them. But what does research say about how it will affect human health? Researchers review what the literature has suggested so far about non-ionizing radiation from 2G and 3G, including a 2018 study from the National Toxicology Program (NTP) that found an increase in tumors for male rats. The NTP’s John Bucher and Jonathan Samet of the Colorado School of Public Health join Ira to discuss the data, and the limitations of research to date. Plus, toxicologist and epidemiologist Devra Davis of the Environmental Health Trust provides a statement on the health concerns of 5G.


Frequently Asked Questions About 5G

Science Friday spoke with Washington Post technology reporter Brian Fung before the Friday show to ask commonly asked questions about the next generation of wireless networks.

What does “5G” stand for?
“5G” stands for the fifth generation of wireless networks. 5G is essentially the successor of 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE), the mobile data network used by your devices today, says Brian Fung, technology reporter at the Washington Post, in a call to Science Friday ahead of the show.   

What will the first push of 5G look like for everyday users?
Proponents of 5G say that its ability to transmit a lot of data very quickly, “makes it perfect for applications like self-driving cars, potentially, or a burgeoning Internet of Things, where you have lots of smart appliances or smart home devices that are connected to the internet,” says Fung.

“5G is basically opening up a whole new class of applications and new technologies, which right now are pretty limited,” says Fung. “It’s not just self-driving cars, but truly wireless virtual reality and augmented reality [among some of the potential technologies].”

How much faster will 5G be than 4G LTE? Or 3G?
In the 3G era, consumers were able to get access to email and browse the web on their phones, says Fung. With the upgrade to 4G, people could start using their phones to actively participate online “instead of consuming the internet passively,” Fung says—using apps, watching and uploading videos, posting on Instagram, and so on. The shift from 3G to 4G may not have felt as dramatic, because users could still engage in richer media consumption online using wireless internet at home. “The switch from 4G to 5G is going to be a bigger deal than 3G to 4G,” Fung says.

5G speeds have been predicted to be as high as 100 times faster than a mobile device using 4G, according to carriers such as AT&T, says Fung. At its theoretical peak, users will experience estimated maximum download speeds of 1,000 megabits per second, compared to 10 to 15 megabits per second with 4G LTE, says Fung.

5G speeds have been predicted to be as high as 100 times faster than a mobile device using 4G.

When can we realistically expect 5G to roll out?
Most analysts don’t think we will have widespread 5G networks available in the United States until at least late 2019 and more likely 2020, says Fung—but even then, “there aren’t even very many phones that are capable of taking advantage of this technology in the United States.”

What is millimeter wave technology?
There are many different telecommunication technologies on the table for supporting a 5G network. One of the popular options is tapping into millimeter wavelengths—relieving the increasingly more congested radio bands that our devices currently use to transmit data. Millimeter waves are a higher frequency wavelength than radio waves. Not only would broadcasting over millimeter waves free up the overcrowded spectrum, but it would also mean “you can pump a lot of information through it over a given period of time,” says Fung.

However, the problem with millimeter waves is how far they travel and how penetrable they can be: “Lower frequency airwaves that we have been using to date are pretty good at going through walls and going through buildings, so that’s why you can get a cell phone signal in your office,” Fung says. “But the thing with millimeter waves is that they are not very good at penetrating these barriers, and what they typically do instead is bounce off.”

The industry is working around this issue by creating small cell networks—groups of stations a fraction of the size of traditional cell towers—that would work together to pass off signals, avoiding any dropped transmissions that would be blocked by objects. Some small cell networks are already used for 4G, but more would be a crucial component for 5G, says Fung. A few  carriers, like Verizon and Sprint, are currently building their 5G networks on medium-frequency airwaves. Check out a 2017 guide to candidate 5G technologies at IEEE Spectrum.

“The switch from 4G to 5G is going to be a bigger deal than 3G to 4G.”

How does the U.S. fare in the race to 5G?
Countries around the world are vying to implement 5G networks. Earlier this month, three South Korean wireless carriers switched on a nationwide 5G network that currently covers 85 cities, while companies in China like Huawei are upping production of 5G technologies.

“What we have in the United States is not nearly as advanced,” Fung tells Science Friday. Verizon launched 5G service in parts of Chicago and Minneapolis, and companies like Sprint say they are on track to switch on a 5G network by the end of the first half of the year in select cities.

“Part of the reason why the U.S. is so focused on trying to ‘win this race’ is not just because of the economic advantages, but also because if you have an economic lead you’re able to set the terms of debate about how this technology evolves—who’s in control, what kind of rules surrounding national security are wrapped up in this,” says Fung. “At a more abstract level, it’s essentially about control over the future of the internet.”


Further Reading

  • Read Brian Fung’s story on China’s Huawei and how it is competing with 5G companies in the U.S. on the Washington Post and find more of his reporting on 5G here.
  • Get a complete breakdown of 5G and the technologies involved through IEEE Spectrum’s guides, graphics, and videos
  • Read how skeptics say 5G might not be enough to support autonomous vehicles in EDN Network.
  • Read the full National Toxicology Program study on cell phone radio frequency radiation on rats.
  • Read The Verge’s take on carriers’ hype for 5G.
  • Find out why 5G has rekindled the decades-old fight over cellular health risks in Motherboard.
  • Check out Undark’s reporting on the history of the health concerns of cell phone radiation.

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Segment Guests

Brian Fung

Brian Fung is a technology reporter with the Washington Post in Washington, D.C..

Harold Feld

Harold Feld is senior vice president at Public Knowledge in Washington, D.C..

Jonathan Samet

Jonathan Samet is the Dean of the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado-Denver, in Denver, Colorado.

John Bucher

John Bucher is former associate director and a senior scientist at the National Toxicology Program, in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Hey, smartphone users. Do you find yourself waiting impatiently to load that HD video of that TV show? Or maybe you’re looking forward to the next-generation 5G, supposedly 100 times faster than what your 4G can accomplish. Companies like Verizon are already installing high-speed 5G infrastructure in some cities, like Chicago and Minneapolis. But what does that mean for how soon you might get to use it? 

Well, last week, President Trump announced a major new push to get 5G moving faster throughout the country, including a new FCC auction of high-frequency spectrum, large investments in rural broadband, and a commitment to, quote, “winning the race” to 5G. But what exactly is 5G made of? And what will it take to move from the dream to a reality? 

And the tech isn’t without critics. A senator and a congresswoman have called on the government to investigate the possible health hazards of 5G radio waves. The House Science Committee, along with NASA and NOAA, have voiced worries that the 5G frequencies being auctioned could spill over and interfere with weather satellite collecting data about water vapor needed to predict storms and hurricanes. And some have called 5G a security risk since some of the equipment uses electronics made in China. We’re going to dig into those concerns for the rest of the hour. 

If you’d like to talk about it, our number is 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. Here with me first to tackle the who, what, when, where, why is Brian Fung, tech reporter for The Washington Post in Washington. Welcome, Brian. 

BRIAN FUNG: Thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: OK. When we talk about 5G, what is different that makes 5G faster than 4G that we’re already using? 

BRIAN FUNG: Well, one of the big differences between 4G and 5G is the idea that 5G largely relies on high-frequency airwaves that can carry a lot more data much more quickly. Now, it comes with some trade-offs. The high-frequency airwaves don’t travel as far as many of the airwaves we’ve used in the past to carry things like 4G LTE. So that’s required a lot of wireless carriers, like AT&T and Verizon, to invest in small cells, cells that are much smaller in range than those that they’ve used in the past. 

IRA FLATOW: So that means that you’ll have a lot more cells on your block on the light posts and things like that. 

BRIAN FUNG: That’s right. And that’s led to a number of policy debates and tensions even between the federal government and cities and states over just how these antennas ought to be located and how much cities and states should be allowed to charge the carriers for access to telephone poles and the like. And the FCC has done a number of things to try and lower those what they call “regulatory barriers” despite critics who say these fees that cities charge wireless carriers represent a significant source of budgetary revenue for them. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about who will benefit most from this faster network. I mean, my smartphone does everything I need it to do it right now. So I don’t think that 5G is aimed right at me directly, is it? 

BRIAN FUNG: Well, that’s a great question because think about your experience with previous versions of wireless data when you had 3G on your phone. Most people were using 3G to access web pages or email. But you couldn’t really use 3G to do some of the data-intensive activities that we normally do today now, such as streaming music or video or, in fact, creating videos to upload to social media. 

Now with 4G, all those things are possible. And with 5G, you have a lot of proponents of the technology who say it’s going to enable and unlock even other technologies that we don’t typically find in use all that often today, things like virtual reality, augmented reality, self-driving cars, and a growing internet of things, which involves smart appliances that are all talking to each other over the internet. 

IRA FLATOW: And so how soon do we expect this to really become available to everybody? 

BRIAN FUNG: Well, as you pointed out, carriers like Verizon have started rolling out 5G on a very limited basis this year. And we can expect that to continue in the next year or two. Analysts at this point project that we’ll probably have nationwide coverage in 5G by 2020, at least in certain bands of airwaves. It won’t be complete probably for many years after that. But in most cities, you should be able to see companies like T-Mobile and Sprint, which are using lower-frequency airwaves, delivering 5G probably in that time frame. 

IRA FLATOW: Our phone number, 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Orlando and Morgan. Welcome to Science Friday. 

AUDIENCE: Hi. So my question is, I have AT&T. And I’m already seeing the 5G on my phone. Is it specific to the Orlando area? Or are they just kind of picking and choosing random phones to put it on? 

IRA FLATOW: How do you know you have 5G on your phone? 

AUDIENCE: So it normally would say 4G next to the bars on the top left. And now it’s saying 5G. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. what do you think, Brian? Thanks for the call. 

BRIAN FUNG: So this is actually a really great point to pick up on and a really important place to start because, as the caller mentioned, AT&T has begun to roll out this new branding on a lot of smartphones. And the key to understanding what’s going on here is that this isn’t true 5G. What they call it is “5G Evolution.” And what you’re probably seeing on your phone there is not a symbol that says 5G, but a symbol that actually says 5GE. 

And what AT&T is doing there is kind of a little bit of sleight of hand. They’ve added some upgrades to the traditional 4G LTE service. And then they’re branding it as– essentially they’re saying that they’re on the road to 5G. But they’re not there yet, which is why they tack on that E at the end. 

And in fact, this type of marketing has attracted a lot of critics, including Sprint, who has sued AT&T for deceptive marketing on this front, saying that it’s not real 5G if you’re saying it’s 5G, quote unquote, “Evolution.” And technologically speaking, it’s not very different from what others currently brand on the market as simply LTE. 

IRA FLATOW: President Trump said he wants the US to win the race to 5G. Who’s in that race? What does it mean to win it? 

BRIAN FUNG: Well, pretty much everyone in the world is in this race. And when we talk about this so-called “race to 5G,” what we’re really talking about is a race for widespread consumer adoption of 5G. And I’ll explain the theory behind that. The idea here is that if the United States can gain an early lead in getting vast numbers of Americans connected to 5G, you’re going to see a broad base of support for the types of applications and services that require 5G in order to operate successfully and at scale. 

So things like self-driving cars are a great example of this, where these cars will have to be communicating with one another at very low latency and very reliably and very quickly. Without broad, widespread adoption of this technology, self-driving cars may take a little bit longer to get on the road, so to speak, which is why you have government officials saying it’s imperative that 5G be rolled out quickly so that US companies can be the ones to dominate these future technologies and to be the ones shaping the future internet and the future economy. 

IRA FLATOW: But isn’t there some worry that the equipment they’re going to be using in 5G is not made in the US, but made in Chinese factories, and worried about the security of the system? 

BRIAN FUNG: So there is some concern about that. And basically what those concerns revolve around are the equipment that goes inside cell towers that allow the cell towers to talk to mobile devices. And around the world, there are only a handful of companies that actually produce that sophisticated hardware– companies like Huawei, companies like Nokia and Ericsson. 

The concerns about the security of the hardware really have to do mainly with the Chinese manufacturers. And you have officials from the Trump administration who have come out, warning allies not to have Huawei or ZTE gear in their networks for fear that it could allow the Chinese government to eavesdrop on sensitive US communications. The US government doesn’t share those same concerns when it comes to European manufacturers, like Nokia and Ericsson. But it does cite those concerns with Chinese makers. 

IRA FLATOW: Before I let you go, I want to talk about one other issue. Several members of Congress, as well as the head of NASA and a head of NOAA, have been asking the FCC to hold off on their spectrum auction, which is coming later this year. 

They are worried that the high-frequency millimeter waves might veer too close to the frequencies that weather satellites use to monitor the weather, the water vapor. They’re right next to each other. And that is an important component in forecasting. Is this likely? This auction is well planned. It’s not going to be put off. What do you think? 

BRIAN FUNG: I think the way to view this is in the context of essentially a bureaucratic debate about who gets control over the airwaves. And this is one example. But there are a lot of examples of agencies that feel very protective of the spectrum that they control or use to further their agency’s mission. 

And when it comes to finding out what parts of government-controlled spectrum where airwaves can be auctioned off to the private sector or to the public, you always tend to get these backlashes or debates about– giving this spectrum up to the private sector could allow for interference. Or it could hinder our mission. And so I think the way to look at this challenge by NOAA and NASA is sort of in this context, one of a bureaucratic tussle. 

IRA FLATOW: We’ll see how it plays out and whether it does affect the weather forecasting. Brian Fung, thank you for taking time to be with us today. 

BRIAN FUNG: My pleasure. 

IRA FLATOW: Brian Fung is a tech reporter for The Washington Post. As we heard just a minute ago, there are some gaps between 5G as it has been envisioned. And now it’s currently being deployed in the US. And one unanswered question– who will benefit the most? 

Here to talk about policy and equity is Harold Feld, a lawyer and senior vice president of the consumer group Public Knowledge. He joins us from Washington. Welcome to Science Friday. 

HAROLD FELD: Thank you very much for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: Why are you concerned that 5G could perpetuate a digital divide? 

HAROLD FELD: Well, as Brian was just saying, one of the trade-offs about these frequencies is that they don’t go as far. They have a lot more throughput, but they don’t go as far. So right now, if you live in a poor neighborhood in a city or if you live out in a rural area, you don’t have really good wireline broadband service because nobody wants to spend the money to bring fiber to those neighborhoods or those communities. 

In urban areas at least you can get good wireless because right now you put up a cell tower, and it covers a huge chunk of the city. These things are going to require what they are calling “densification” because, of course, everything needs to have a funny name. But that means you’re not going to be able to put up one tower, and it’s going to cover lots of neighborhoods. You’re going to have to basically line streets to cover the area to get that gigabit throughput that they’re trying to do. 

So all this deregulation that the FCC is doing and that states are doing that the wireless companies are pushing for is taking away any requirement to serve communities that these companies don’t want to serve. So what we’re in danger of seeing, if we don’t have the right policies, is first of all, nobody will build out to the rural areas because it’s already expensive to build wireless out to rural areas. It’s going to be 10 times more expensive to build this stuff out in rural areas. And in urban areas, the places that right now at least can get good 4G wireless are unlikely to see 5G wireless built out with these kind of new antennas. 

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios talking 5G with Harold Feld. So you think that we’re going to have basically the status quo on a digital divide. 

HAROLD FELD: Yeah. I mean, look. This is what we’ve seen time and again– is that companies are not in the business of social policy. They’re not here to do good things. They’re not here to make sure all Americans have access. That’s what the Federal Communications Commission is for. That’s section one of the Communications Act– is to provide for all Americans. And unfortunately, that’s not something that this administration has shown a lot of interest in. 

There was a big announcement last week, where they said, oh, we’re going to put $20 billion into new fiber going out to rural areas. If you take a look at it, as the Democratic FCC commissioners pointed out, all they’re really doing is taking a program that exists right now that puts $2 billion a year into rural broadband infrastructure and scraping off the Obama program that’s on it right now and writing in “Trump program.” And it’s the same program. It’s the same amount of money. 

So it’s not really going to change anything. And it’s not really going to move the status quo. And pretty much all the regulation that’s being pushed right now is to help the companies and not ask for anything back. And that’s just crazy. 

If we’re going to give these companies rights of way and access to telephone poles and all of these things, then we ought to make the deal that we always make with public utilities and say, hey, you got to serve everybody. You can’t just cherry pick the rich people and ignore all the people who you don’t want to serve. 

IRA FLATOW: Do the cities have any power in this? 

HAROLD FELD: Well, the cities have some power unless– and this is one of the reasons why the wireless industry is beating the drum so much on this 5G race. And oh, we got to do everything right away. And everybody ought to panic because China’s going to eat our lunch. And it’s going to be horrible. 

This happens every time that we move to a new technology so that you can get state legislatures to pass laws. And many of them now have. California is, in fact, considering a law that totally deregulates its internet services on the grounds that that’s going to get deployment. And what happens when you do that is it removes all the anti-redlining rules. 

Right now localities control the rights of way. They can say, hey, you want a franchise to serve the rich neighborhoods? Well, then you have to also serve the poor neighborhoods. Hey, you want to serve the cities where you can make a lot of money? You also got to serve the rural areas, where maybe you’re not going to make as much money. 

The FCC and the state legislators, at the urging of the wireless companies, are saying, preempt all that authority. Make that go away, and we promise that we will just roll it out that much faster to everybody if you get rid of all these regulations. But we’ve seen time and again when you do that, yeah, somehow they never get around to deploying to the areas where the poor people live. 

IRA FLATOW: All right, Harold. Thank you for taking– we’ve run out of time. But there’s some great thoughts to think about. Harold Feld, lawyer and senior vice president of the consumer group Public Knowledge in Washington. After the break, more on the future of 5G. We’ll take stock of what we know and don’t know about cell phone radiation, its effects on the human body, what that means as a tech changes. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break. 

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about 5G, the promised ultrafast next generation of wireless communication, what is it, and why it may or may not live up to the promises. 

But there is another big can of worms that has been asked many times of us. Will it affect our health? Do cell phones, 5G cause cancer or brain damage? We have touched on this before. And we still get asked about it all the time. So we’re going to take up that topic again. 

The research into non-ionizing radiation is perplexing. And it is unclear, enough so that Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and representative Anna Eshoo of California have asked the FCC to provide proof that 5G technology is safe and does not cause cancer. And toxicologist and consumer advocate Devra Davis has been urging more protections for consumers in the meantime. 

DEVRA DAVIS: I think that we ought to take precautions here. And what I would like to see is a moratorium on the rollout and a concerted effort to identify and evaluate safety so that this industry will work to improve hardware and software and reduce exposures. Where we are now with these devices is where we were with cars in the 1960s. We need the equivalent of airbags and seat belts. 

IRA FLATOW: Devra Davis, a consumer protection advocate. Last year, a 10-year study by the National Toxicology Program found an increase in certain tumors for male rats exposed to 2G and 3G radiation. But can that really translate into human health? And what can we make of the rest of the research out there in deciding safety? 

John Bucher was one of the authors on that 10-year rat study. He’s a senior scientist at the National Toxicology Program in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and former associate director there. Welcome, Dr. Bucher. 

JOHN BUCHER: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: And Jonathan Samet is dean of the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Denver. Welcome, Dr. Samet. 

JONATHAN SAMET: Thank you so much, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Bucher, your group published the final results of your 10-year study on rats and cell phone radiation. The draft came out last year. The final came out this year. Describe what you were looking at and what you found. 

JOHN BUCHER: So we were looking at the possibility that the non-ionizing radiation, as you mentioned, from cellular telephones that are used to communicate with the base towers or the cell towers that use a segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is termed “non-ionizing” has always been relatively considered benign with respect to biological effects other than heating, perhaps. And this is opposed to ionizing radiation, which is like gamma or X-rays that are known to cause cancer. 

So it was somewhat of a surprise back in the late ’90s when studies came out of Sweden that reported some suggestive evidence of the association of cellular telephones with the occurrence of brain cancers. And many of the cancers that were reported were of glial cell origin, which is a type of tissue that surrounds and supports nerves. And not long after those reports came out, the NTP, the National Toxicology Program, received a request to look into this possibility of performing rodent cancer– in essence, safety assessment– studies with non-ionizing radiation. 

We were, at that time, aware of some similar studies going on in Europe. And we worked with those European groups during the design and performance of those studies and followed the outcome. And those studies were, in fact, negative for increases in tumors. But they had some limitations that we felt would require further, larger, and more powerful studies be performed. 

So we worked with experts in the design and construction of radio frequency radiation exposure systems to create an exposure facility that could house and consistently expose several thousand animals to graded levels of radio frequency radiation, starting during pregnancy, throughout birth, and for most of their natural lifetimes. And this was a large study because we wanted to have the power to have some confidence in the results whether they came out negative or positive for increases in cancers. 

So we exposed rats and mice to radio frequency radiation in 10-minute on, 10-minute off increments over the course of 18 hours every day, using power levels that were somewhat above to slightly below the currently permitted upper power levels for what is termed “local tissue exposures” from cellular telephones. But in our studies, the whole bodies of the rodents were exposed. 

And what we found was that in mice and in female rats, these were largely negative with respect to increases in cancers with the frequencies and the modulations that we used. But in male rats, we were concerned over finding some increases in cancerous tumors of glial cell origin in the brains and the hearts. So to us at the very least, the assumption that non-ionizing radiation is completely benign is, to us, perhaps not correct. 

But for perspective on our findings, the exposure conditions that we used were sufficiently high to have relevance to the regulatory limits and were on the order of perhaps 1,000-fold higher than what one would receive during a typical cell phone call when holding a phone next to the body. But that’s not necessarily the case when you’re going in a subway and trying to talk on the phone or in an elevator, for example. 

IRA FLATOW: Jonathan Samet, you were following the study when it came out in 2018. What was your assessment of the methodology and the results? 

JONATHAN SAMET: Well, to me, the importance of the results lay in their finding these cellular effects that Jon mentioned in the tumors of the heart. And there were parallel findings in another bioassay. So I think that the warning was clear that this type of radiation could cause in these animal systems effects that could be construed as adverse if extended to people. We’re left with the usual quandary of how do you extend, as Jon mentioned, these findings to people, which really brings up the need for more research. 

IRA FLATOW: Yes. And Dr. Bucher, has there been a follow-up study? Those were with 2G and 3G radiation, correct? 

JOHN BUCHER: Yes, that’s correct. 

IRA FLATOW: Is there any follow-up to possibly 5G radiation in the works? 

JOHN BUCHER: So we are currently in the process of assembling a much smaller and much more flexible exposure system that will allow us to be able to look at other frequencies, durations, various intermittent exposures, and also allow us to look at– now that we know the target organs, in essence, of radio frequency radiation, the most sensitive organs, we can begin to look at the molecular changes in those organs and hopefully understand a little bit more about how those changes might relate to the carcinogenic process. And if we do that with the technologies that we had currently used in the 2G and 3G studies, we can then extend those biological outcomes to studies of 4G and perhaps 5G, although those are technologically very difficult studies to accomplish. 

IRA FLATOW: Jonathan, critics have brought up a few strange things in the study, namely that the radiation only seemingly seemed to affect male rats and that the rats that received the radiation treatment actually lived longer than the control rats. 

JONATHAN SAMET: Right. And you know, I think that often with animal studies– and I think this is more perhaps Jon’s domain than mine– there are often inconsistencies in something seen in males or females or one species and not another, as in this case. To me that doesn’t change the bottom line that effects were found. 

And I think that leaves us struggling with, how did these effects occur? What is the underlying mechanism? And Jon talked a little bit already about the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. One thing we really need to hone in on is, what are the mechanisms by which non-ionizing radiation could have effects that we think of as adverse to potentially the human health? 

IRA FLATOW: So Dr. Bucher– and you, Jon, asked the same question. So if we don’t have any studies right now about 5G, and 5G is being rolled out without these studies, aren’t we basically actually conducting a population study of billions of people who will be exposed to 5G to see what happens to them? 

JONATHAN SAMET: Well, let me weigh in here. We say that something is safe if its risks are judged to be acceptable. And if we don’t have information on the risks, we’re left unable to judge safety. And I think, as you put it, that’s right where we are. We have some ways to track if something goes awry in what you’ve described as an experiment of human exposure if brain cancer rates rise. We have tumor registries that monitor cancers throughout the US and other countries. 

The problem is, we don’t want to find out that there’s a problem because we’ve seen brain cancer rates rise. That’s just like the smoking story where we learned that smoking can cause lung cancer because lung cancer rates went up. So I think we need the right studies that will help us look at the risks. Animal studies are part of that picture, I think, probably in the mechanisms and if we can do some clever observational or epidemiological studies as well. 

IRA FLATOW: I have a tweet from Jim, who says something that a lot of people say who push back against the idea that cell phones may cause health problems. And Jim says, if this non-ionizing radiation is causing cancer, wouldn’t we have an explosion in the number of human cancers by now given the rapid adoption of cell phones and other wireless devices? Jon? 

JONATHAN SAMET: Yeah. We have an answer to that. We know that cancers develop over a long period of time. And if you turn to the atomic bomb survivors, one of the largest populations exposed to radiation, there was a rise in acute leukemia early. But the burden of cancers– colon, breast, lung– that came 30, 40 years later. 

So we don’t have enough experience in hand. And then, of course, exposures are always changing– 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G, and whatever is to come. So we need to get a basic foundation of understanding that we’re still lacking. 

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of understanding, John Bucher, any idea of what the possible mechanism could be for what you saw in the study if the radiation is not actually breaking chemical bonds? 

JOHN BUCHER: So there have been a number of potential mechanisms that have been studied throughout the years. There still is a question about the role of heat in radio frequency radiation-induced biological effects. We know RFR does cause heat. But the regulations are put in place such that that would be expected to be limited during the use of cell phones. 

There are other ways other than causing ion-induced damage to cause genetic injury that may not be direct. It could be through oxidative stress. It could be through inhibition of the DNA repair mechanisms that normally repair damage that occurs every day. 

Some studies have suggested that there might be a diminished immune response in individuals that are heavily exposed to radio frequency radiation, which might limit the tumor surveillance that goes on. And then there are also possibilities that people have raised about changes in the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, which might expose brain tissues to agents that would not normally occur. So really, there are lots of possibilities. But we don’t really have a good idea of the best ones at the moment. 

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about the potential health hazards of non-ionizing radiation and radio waves. OK. So Dr. Bucher, what would be the study that could answer all these questions? And who would pay for that? 

JOHN BUCHER: Well, if we are correct in our presumption that we could establish biological markers of radio frequency radiation-induced effects in the organ systems that we’ve seen have been responsive in our studies, then we could monitor those same molecular changes using a 5G technology exposure system. The 5G is at the higher frequencies proposed to not penetrate much beyond the skin. 

We know that the frequencies that we used in our studies do penetrate the body. And in fact, one of the reasons that the male rats might have been responsive as opposed to females in mice was that we had evidence that they did tend to absorb more of the radio frequency radiation simply because they’re larger. So there are a lot of geometric issues at play here with respect to where radiation actually goes, how far it penetrates, and what the targets might be that we need to sort through. 

IRA FLATOW: OK. We’re going to have to leave it there. We’ve run out of time. I’d like to thank my guests, John Bucher, senior scientist at the National Toxicology Program in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and a former associate director there, and Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado in Denver. Thank you both for taking the time to be with us today. 

JONATHAN SAMET: Certainly. Thank you. 

JOHN BUCHER: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. One last thing before we go. This week, we got word of the passing of Nobel-winning neuroscientist Paul Greengard. He was known for his studies of how neurons communicate. He joined us in October of 2000 with co-Nobel winner Eric Kandel to discuss his work. 

What’s your biggest challenge, you think? 

PAUL GREENGARD: I think the biggest challenge not only for me, but for the whole neuroscience community, would be to see whether there’s one or several– and if so, how many– basic underlying principles to how the brain works. In the case of heredity, there was the double helix. That’s a single principle. And everything else flows from that. 

My guess– and my guess is that is Eric’s guess and the guess of most other neuroscience– is that there probably is not a single principle. But there is a cluster of principles, some of which we’re learning, like fast transmission and slow transmission. 

IRA FLATOW: No grand unifying theory. 

PAUL GREENGARD: That would be my guess 

ERIC KANDEL: Yeah. I think Paul is absolutely right on that. I think there’s– 

PAUL GREENGARD: But we can’t stop trying to see if there is such one, right, Eric? 

IRA FLATOW: Paul Greengard passed away this week at the age of 93.

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