We all have a tiny Alex Jones in our brain. When we forget he’s there, it’s easy to mock the belief that 5G waves are causing our current viral pandemic. But with telecommunications masts on fire overseas, it’s a reminder that irrational beliefs can lead to dangerous acts in the real world. Because if you did think that a pandemic that is affecting our way of life was actually caused by cell towers and that politicians were in denial about it because they wanted to please the telecommunications industry, wouldn’t you take action?
The ways in which 5G and COVID-19 are pushed together, like an angry puzzle solver forcing two pieces to interlock when they can’t, are manifold and reveal the spectrum on which many people find themselves, from mild concern to the belief that shape-shifting aliens run the world. It’s important to address the claims spreading online but perhaps even more fundamental to understand why these theories are born in the first place.
The fear of non-ionizing radiation
There’s something unnerving about an invisible radiation artificially being beamed around by corporations, but we need to unpack this feeling first in order to understand how misleading it is. Radiation is a loaded term but it simply means the emission of energy. If we look at the type of radiation implicated in 5G, electromagnetic radiation, how much of an energetic punch it packs depends on where it is on the spectrum. Radio waves, microwaves and infrared radiation are low energy. Visible light is more energetic. Even more potent is ultraviolet light (UV), X-rays, and gamma rays. This last segment of the spectrum has enough energy to knock electrons out of atoms, a property we call “ionizing.” It’s why UV light can cause skin cancer: it has enough energy to mess with our DNA. It’s also why getting an X-ray every day is a bad idea for your health.
But 5G signals, used by more and more cell phone technology providers to allow faster speeds, are in the radio and microwave end of the spectrum. Compared to the fast sprinters of the ultraviolet range and beyond, radio waves and microwaves are sluggish. In fact, the 5G signal used by cell phones is actually 17,000 times less energetic than the least-energetic visible light ray. The body of evidence we have on whether or not these signals can cause cancer strongly points to them not being able to. If they are concentrated enough (which does not happen with 5G and would not be desirable), they can heat up objects that contain water, which is how a microwave oven works. But they are, to borrow the words of Douglas Adams, mostly harmless. In fact, even if we turned off every cell phone tower in the world, we would still be bathed in these low-energy waves. This is why we have radio telescopes on Earth. We are, in fact, constantly exposed to even higher-energy radiation. The reason why we can see the world around us is because the Sun is a massive radiation engine covering our planet with visible light, much more energetic than those 5G signals.
For those who want to delve deeper into “Cell phones do not cause cancer despite what you might have read", click here
It’s impossible to discuss the 5G claims entangled with COVID-19 without mentioning the myth that doesn’t die: that cell phones allegedly cause cancer.
Many major health organizations have issued statements regarding the lack of bad health outcomes (including cancer) from exposure to cell phone signals, like the WHO (“to date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use”), the Centers for Disease Control (“at this time we do not have the science to link health problems to cell phone use”), the FDA (“the weight of scientific evidence has not linked exposure to radio frequency energy from cell phone use with any health problems”), and the National Cancer Institute (“there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk in humans”). There is no good data that shows harm and no mechanism by which these signals could cause harm in humans..
But for those who believe there is a link, the study that gets mentioned the most in this area is the NTP study (short for National Toxicology Program), in which scientists irradiated rodents with cell phone signals and went looking for cancerous tumours. Scientists cherry-picked the results from it that fit their theory and ignored findings that disagreed with it, chief among them the fact that the irradiated rodents lived longer than the control rodents who were not exposed to cell phone radiation. For a complete rundown of what went wrong with the NTP study, I would invite you to read Dr. Christopher Labos’ article here.
Despite these well-known scientific facts, outbreaks of misinformation about 5G and COVID-19 are erupting all over social media. I dove in one day, with my critical thinking skills as my only PPE, to find out what people were saying and how they were squaring that circle. YouTube has made it harder to find this content, promoting authoritative sources and pushing the folks “just asking questions” further down the list. Still, as science YouTuber Tom Scott said in one of his talks, “If you would like to be convinced of a thing, YouTube and Twitter and all the other networks will happily find you people to convince you.” In my YouTube journey, I heard that the International Association of Fire Fighters issued a position statement on cell phone radiation citing concerns about long-term exposure (firefighters have the right to be concerned, of course, but we should not mistake them for experts on the science of electromagnetic radiation). I heard that some people get headaches from 5G towers (this so-called electromagnetic hypersensitivity has been tested in lab conditions, enough to show that in the people tested, the symptoms are real but the cause is not wireless signals). I read comments about radiation poisoning our cells, about concerted efforts by shadowy forces to depopulate the world, about needing to fight 5G and to destroy these towers.
But the most coherent theory I saw for how 5G plays into COVID-19 specifically is that 5G is stressing and poisoning the cells in our body, causing the symptoms of COVID-19, and our distressed cells are releasing tiny bubbles called exosomes, which is what scientists the world over are mistaking for the virus. That’s right. Biomedical scientists in over 200 countries are either really dumb or they are all in on the conspiracy. We have known about exosomes since 1983: they are tiny delivery trucks moving things around between cells. They played a role in my research project in grad school because we were interested in one of the many things they can transport: very short regulatory molecules called microRNAs. But these fascinating transport bubbles have been hijacked by people like Dr. Andrew Kaufman and infamous conspiracy king David Icke. They say scientists are simply detecting exosome genetic material when they say they’re detecting that of the virus. Not true. When coronavirus RNA is amplified as a diagnostic test, it’s a sequence unique to the virus that is amplified by design. We have sequenced so many human genomes, we know that we do not ordinarily carry the coronavirus sequence inside our cells. These facts, however, will not convince ardent believers.
To many, the noise is the signal
Before the advent of 5G, a segment of the population was anxious over 4G and, before that, 3G. These worries, it seems, were mostly alleviated when nothing bad happened. The signal gets turned on, years go by, and no ill effect is seen. But as science-based skeptic Mike Hall pointed out recently, this time, something bad did happen. We heard about 5G rollout and, seemingly at the same time, a massive pandemic took the world by storm. Correlation does not imply causation, but to our irrational brain, the link can be hard to dismiss. Many people are claiming 5G first came on in Wuhan, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, but that’s not exactly true. South Korea and parts of the United States had access to 5G months before that, and many of our home routers were using this part of the spectrum way before Wuhan did. Italy itself does not have a large penetration of 5G technology, and yet they were hit particularly hard by COVID-19. France and Iran do not have any 5G technology currently installed, but they were not spared by the coronavirus. Even if we throw the science of electromagnetic radiation out the window, the numbers themselves don’t make sense.
But conspiracy theories don’t have to make sense. In fact, it’s been shown that many conspiracists can hold two diametrically opposed beliefs as true simultaneously. Osama bin Laden can be both alive and dead in the mind of a single person, alive because he is at large or is secretly being held for interrogation by the CIA, and dead because video appearances post-2000 were staged with a body double. What’s crucial is to deny the official story. Believing in one conspiracy theory puts us at an increased risk of believing in others. And we are all predisposed to these irrational takes on the world around us. Our brain sees patterns even where there are none, and it’s a trick that has been both instrumental to our survival and confusing when we seek truth. The Face on Mars is a great illustration of our brain’s deep wiring for these patterns.
Some of the comments I read on 5G conspiracy videos highlighted the fact that “we have been lied to before.” Tobacco scientists told us cigarettes were fine, and Purdue Pharma said addiction to oxycontin was only seen in less than 1% of patients. But when your distrust rises to the level of disbelieving multiple panels of experts weighing in on radio waves and our health, whom do you trust instead? Too often the answer is lone conspiracists who cherry-pick the data and fantasize out loud. A kinship is forged out of a common distrust. And it’s down and down the rabbit hole, science be damned.
- 5G wireless signals are low in energy and the consensus from panels of scientific experts is that they do not cause harm to human health.
- The link that some people claim exists between COVID-19 and 5G rollout does not make scientific sense and is contradicted by the fact that many countries with large number of COVID-19 cases had very little 5G or none at all, and vice versa.
- Belief in grand conspiracy theories are due to the fact that our brain looks for patterns even where there are none, and distrust in the “official story” becomes a core feature of this type of thinking