If you've walked around Queen Anne recently, you may have noticed a bright yellow flier hanging from utility poles around the neighborhood: "PUBLIC NOTICE," reads one posted at the corner of Galer St. and 4th Ave. N. "Dangerous 5G Cell Tower above on this pole Harmful to humans, animals, and plants within 500 ft Do the research yourself!!!!" At the bottom of the flyer are a number of links to websites claiming that 5G will kill you and a request that you call the City and demand the 5G tower be removed.
I saw a photo of the flyer on Reddit Wednesday morning, and the timing was fortuitous: Just the day before, I'd gotten into something of tiff with "friend" who will go "unnamed" after she asked me if I was worried about 5G. She follows a bunch of holistic health accounts on Instagram, many of which are on a campaign to alert the public to the dangers of this emerging technology. I told her not to believe anything she sees on Instagram, and then she furiously googled "the problems with 5G" until she found a bevy of articles claiming that 5G is responsible for everything from cancer to autism to Alzheimers to sterility in humans. I told her not to believe anything you read on Google, but, clearly, 5G is something of a fraught subject, both online and on utility poles in Seattle.
So, what's the truth about 5G?
First, let's get to what it is. To vastly simplify it, 5G is the next generation of wireless networks. It's an upgrade to current 4G wireless systems and it will sped up all sorts of devices, including cell phones, and make computing faster than ever, both for personal use and for business and industry. It will, for instance, enable you to download entire albums, TV shows, or movies within seconds, but using it will require getting 5G-enabled devices, which will be about 20 times faster than current speeds. It's very, very fast and very, very controversial.
5G has become something for a boogeyman as of late, with tons of misinformation spreading about the technology online. The Facebook group Stop 5G has over 20,000 members, many of whom share links to articles with headlines like "Apple’s New iPhones to Come with Built-in 5G Transmitters… AVOID all Apple Products or Be Irradiated." That one came from NaturalNews.com, a website that promotes alternative medicine and conspiracy theories (for instance: Zika was spread by genetically modified mosquitoes). They also sell dietary supplements, making the site something like InfoWars for people with co-op memberships and on-call astrologers. It's bullshit, but that doesn't mean it's not convincing if you’re prone to distrust technology and big business.
But what does the science actually say about 5G? Could it shrink your balls and give you brain cancer?
It's doubtful. There is no good evidence that 5G, 4G, 3G or other wireless networks have adverse effects on human health. These fears, however, are in no way new: No matter how many times scientists debunk their claims, people have long connected radio frequencies from cell phones with diseases like cancer. When it comes to wireless networks, according to a fascinating article in the New York Times, these fears originated with one physicist in Florida who, in 2000, made a graph showing that wireless technologies would drastically increase the exposure of radio frequencies. His findings were never published in a peer-reviewed journal, maybe because they were wrong: radio waves are actually safer at the high frequencies required by wireless tech, and, besides, have still never been demonstrated to cause cancer.
Despite the evidence that 5G is safe, communities around the world are trying to banish 5G before it's rolled out. In the Bay Area (surprise), the small town of Mill Valley used an urgency ordinance to block 5G cell towers from being built in residential areas, and there have been similar attempts across the U.S. and Europe.
The fear over 5G is reminiscent of that over vaccines and GMOs, two other technologies that have been overwhelmingly demonstrated to be safe for human health but which significant numbers of people still fear. And this fear has real impacts: for instance, measles, which recently spread through vaccine-skeptical communities in numbers not since the measles vaccine was made widely available.
It's not hard to see why people are skeptical of new technology—who the hell trusts cell phone companies? They can barely get my bill right—but there is no evidence that we should fear 5G.
Unfortunately, misinformation about 5G isn't just limited to Facebook groups and fliers posted on utility poles. Semi-reputable sites like Salon have published pieces questioning the safety of 5G, as has the English-language Russian propaganda network RT, which is actively sowing distrust of this tech in the U.S. while, at the same time, Russia implements 5G at home as part of the ongoing information race against the U.S. and China, both of which are trying to adopt this tech first. In January, an anchor for RT actually said 5G "might kill you" in a video that then spread online. People believe this kind of stuff, and why wouldn't they? It looks legitimate when coming from a news anchor.
As for the flier on Queen Anne, ignore it. There is no Dangerous 5G Cell Tower on that utility pole because, according to a spokesperson from the city, there's no 5G yet in Seattle. That will likely change at some point: The major phone carriers are rolling out 5G in some cities now and are expected to expand nationwide in the next few years. This may be bad news for those concerned about radio frequencies and cellular waves invading their brains and bodies, but for everyone else, this will mean faster internet. And for those who are really worried about it—my "friend" included—the good news is, you can always block the waves with a hat made out of tin foil.