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Truth Tracker: No, COVID-19 has nothing to do with 5G technology
TORONTO -- The COVID-19 pandemic has been fertile ground for a deluge of misinformation and conspiracy theories. The latest one gaining wide traction is the false and unscientific claim that links 5G wireless technology to the novel coronavirus.
WHAT IS 5G?
“5G” is the fifth and newest generation in cellular networking. It is expected to be a major leap in wireless technology, with exponentially faster speeds and greater coverage. In Canada, every major carrier currently uses 4G LTE, or fourth generation Long Term Evolution, networks. Globally, 5G has yet to be deployed widely.
THE CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Concerns, speculation and conspiracy theories around 5G, especially its possible adverse effects on health, have been around long before the pandemic. The pandemic has fuelled some of these claims, however, bringing more widespread attention to fringe theories, with high-profile celebrities amplifying false assertions and factually incorrect information on social media.
One version of the 5G/COVID-19 theory claims that the virus somehow “communicates” through 5G radio waves and can target victims. Another claims more generally that the technology somehow compromises or suppresses the immune system, or that it is the source of COVID-19 symptoms. Some claim that 5G’s link to the virus is supported by the fact that there are so few cases of COVID-19 in Africa because of the lack of 5G service on the continent. Others go as far as postulating that it is part of a global conspiracy for population control and a “new world order”. One extension of the 5G/COVID-19 theory is that nanotechnology microchips will be incorporated into the vaccine development to somehow “control” people.
Believers of these conspiracy theories have gone as far as vandalizing a number of 5G network towers in the U.K., with videos of burning towers circulating on social media. Several U.K. mobile service providers confirmed the damage to multiple media outlets and later issued a joint plea to stop. A number of the damaged phone masts are also actually just 4G and 3G technology, which have been around for one and two decades, respectively.
Some of the conspiracy theories point to the timing of China’s roll-out of its 5G service at the start of November, just before the virus was discovered, while a video circulating last month claimed it showed people bringing down a 5G tower in China due to fears it was causing COVID-19. Fact-checking website Snopes.com found the original source of that footage which in fact, dates back to August 2019. The video, which was actually filmed in Hong Kong, was of anti-surveillance protestors tearing down a “smart” lamp post.
WHY THESE CLAIMS ARE FALSE
The rumours around 5G and COVID-19 have prompted government authorities including the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to refute the charges.
The World Health Organization said in February that “currently, exposure from 5G infrastructures at around 3.5 GHz is similar to that from existing mobile phone base stations.” It also said that so far, extensive research has shown that “no adverse health effects have been causally linked with exposure to wireless technology.” But it did add that because the technology is still new, “the extent of any change in exposure to radiofrequency fields is still under investigation.”
For those skeptical of statements issued by government bodies, the science and technology behind 5G also do not support these claims.
Like previous generations of wireless technology, along with numerous other things used in daily life, 5G uses radio waves to send and receive information.
Fullfact.org, a U.K.-based independent fact-checking charity, explains that radio waves “are a small part of a wider electromagnetic spectrum of waves, which all emit energy called electromagnetic radiation.” Like visible light and heat, radio waves fall at the low-frequency end of the spectrum and only produce non-ionising radiation, it says, meaning the waves can not damage DNA inside cells, unlike cancer-causing X-rays and ultraviolet light. 5G uses a higher frequency than earlier generations of wireless technology, but remains very low. U.K. regulator Ofcom found that the maximum levels of electromagnetic radiation measured were 66 times smaller than the threshold set by international guidelines.
Scientists around the world who specialize in electromagnetic exposure, wireless technology, physics, and other related fields, along with international regulatory bodies, have addressed many of the health concerns around 5G. The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), for example, concluded that 5G was safe following a seven-year study.
The ICNIRP states that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF EMFs) exposure and increased temperature can be harmful when it exceeds a specific threshold, but that the study found exposure to EMF frequencies currently used in 5G are not dangerous. Specifically, there is no evidence EMFs cause cancer, infertility, or other health issues, according to a video presentation by the organization’s chairman, Eric van Rogen.
The notion that the virus can somehow “communicate” through 5G is also not supported by science. That idea may be based on a research paper from 2011 that looks at how bacteria might theoretically transmit radio waves, which is already a controversial area of research not accepted by most mainstream scientists, but SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is also a virus, and not bacteria.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that some researchers have also found evidence that the theory was being bolstered by a co-ordinated and organized “disinformation campaign.”
While conspiracy theorists call the timing of the 5G rollout suspect, a number of countries actually launched commercial 5G service months before China. South Korea was officially the first country to offer the service in April, 2019, while Australia began deploying the service in parts of Sydney and Melbourne in May last year. In the United States, service providers began offering 5G in a number of cities by mid-summer of 2019, with Atlanta being the first city to have 5G service from the country’s four biggest carriers.
While it is true that some of the countries hardest-hit by COVID-19 are also among the ones with the widest, though still limited, 5G deployment, the virus also hit a number of other countries where 5G is not yet available. Those countries include Iran, which has more than 73,300 cases and more than 4,500 deaths, and Turkey, which has more than 61,000 cases and some 1,300 deaths.
As with many conspiracy theories, correlation does not imply causation. While there is still a great deal that is unknown about SARS-CoV-2, researchers believe it is primarily spread through droplets such as someone coughing or even just exhaling, and has nothing to do with 5G.
Edited by CTVNews.ca Producer Sonja Puzic