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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

5G: ignorance has a new rallying cry

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

I'm not at all sure about writing anything about those afraid of 5G. Will anybody worried about 5G actually read or care about what I or anybody else says? Some people are desperate to believe in a monster created in backrooms by some kind of Dr Strangelove villians. Others are equally desperate to believe in the assurances of people with suits and scientific titles. Both sides prefer to avoid actually thinking ... which is understandable because it's really hard work!

ABC's "4 Corners" recently tackled the 5G worriers, but reporter Sean Nicholls' mode of attack relied rather too much in authority in my view and too little on looking at the claims and why they are false. Consider the following from Kim Norton:

There's been no consultation. We are going to be in a radiation soup that we cannot opt out of. So, at the moment we have choices. Once 5G is implemented we no longer have any choice. We are in a soup of radiation that we cannot escape.

The first sentence is simply wrong. In Australia the Federal Government called an Inquiry into 5G at the end of 2019.

There were over 500 submissions, including one from a group calling itself "Stop 5G Northern Rivers". This submission (as posted on the Parliamentary website) doesn't have an author, so it may not be Ms Norton ... but it's pretty recent and certainly fascinating; mostly because it doesn't mention radiation at all. It says nothing about health risks other than that people are worried. It doesn't cite any medical papers about radiation risks from 5G ... zip. It's arguments are economic and technical ... in the sense that it cites people who reckon 5G won't make money or deliver anything anybody actually wants or needs. The submission also reckons there are plenty of better ways of building good fast network connectivity; with fibre and wifi.

Which is pretty interesting.

The "Northern Rivers for Safe Technology" looks like a different group with similar anti-5G goals. The difference is probably akin to the difference between the Judean People's Front and the Front of the People of Judea. And then there's an assorted plethora of groups, including the "We say no to 5G in Australia" group and the "EMF Warriors" group; a particularly fetching name.

The NRST band has an "About" page which posts a link to a youtube copy of the infamous ABC Catalyst episode on Wifi risks. So despite the ABC pulling the program from its website and suspending the journalist ... it can still get a run on youtube. So it looks like there are at least two groups in the same geographical vicinity but with different attitudes to wifi? One is desperately afraid of it, and the other is advocating it. Will they do battle over shops selling routers in the streets of local towns? Who knows.

Norton's last claim in the quote above is chilling. Or is it perhaps warming. I'm not exactly sure of exactly what manner of fear is appropriate for a "radiation soup". Perhaps it depends on whether it is Campbells or Heinz. Either way, saying that "[5G will create] a soup of radiation that we cannot escape" implies that we aren't currently in such a soup of radiation ... when we are. And there is certainly no escape.

The soup is commonly called sunshine, but radiation from natural sources comprises far more than just the stuff you can see ... the visible part of the spectrum. We also have infrared, given off by almost everything. Infrared is right next door to the 5G band. Sunshine alone has both ionising and non-ionising components. As one of the 4Corners experts explained, ionising radiation can damage DNA ... which is how it causes skin cancer ... killing some 1400 Australians annually (and hospitalising many thousands more). Non-ionising radiation can't damage DNA ... because it doesn't have the energy required to break the molecular bonds. Which doesn't make it certain that it's safe in small doses, just pretty likely. Warm something up and it gives off more electromagnetic waves, but the heat itself can cause damage ... we call it a burn. But the damage can be more subtle. Anything which raises your core body temperature, like a viral infection ... can damage DNA. Which means it can cause not just cancer, but also birth defects; which always spike after a bad flu season.

But sunshine isn't just deadly, it is also essential ... without it, you get Vitamin D deficiency. Without it, we all starve.

This is kind of the way the real world works. Nothing is either all good or all bad, it's typically both. Caffeine is wonderful stuff with a wide range of health benefits, but excess consumption can certainly be ... not just dangerous, but fatal.

Perhaps Norton's detailed technical description of her concerns about 5G were cut by 4Corners, or perhaps being worried about "radiation soup" really does constitute the full extent of her biological and physical expertise.

Naomi Cook, who also featured in the 4Corners episode, also put in a submission to the Parliamentary Enquiry on 5G. In her submission, she was perfectly happy to talk about the so-called health risks and on the 4Corners program was happy to stand up before a crowd of people and imply that 5G was an existential risk for humanity:

If you are not currently working to stop 5G, this means you don’t understand it. Nothing else matters anymore!

Two sentences, two falsehoods. 4Corners produced various experts, some of whom had been on large international panels of experts but were certainly not working to stop 5G. It would be absurd to pretend these experts are no-nothing dummies. So much for the first sentence.

And the second sentence? "nothing else matters"? Really? Not Covid-19, not biodiversity losses, not poverty, not hunger, not bushfires, not obesity, not climate change, not cancer, not economic collapse, not explosions of stored fertiliser, not heart disease, not the suffering of factory farms, not the horrors of mulesing. What kind of stuff had the audience been smoking to applaud her for that totally obnoxious, cruel and insensitive remark?

4Corners also produced a US nutter; the US really do produce the highest quality of nutters on the planet; the best, absolutely tremendous. They produce them, fawn on them and even elect them. Dr Thomas Cowan linked the emergence of SARS-Cov-2 with 5G at Wuhan by claiming that Wuhan was the first city blanketed by 5G in the world ... except that it wasn't. South Korea has been ahead of China on 5G rollout ... with 85,000 base stations by April of 2019. And it begs the question of where did SARS-Cov-1 come from ... back in 2003? And MERS? And Swine flu? And what about the 1918 Spanish flu? Like I said. Nobody produces them like the US of A.

Causality and risk

The scientific debate about the impacts of EMF radiation is certainly real, but the debate is reminiscent of that other radiation debate ... about low levels of ionising radiation. It's an ivory tower nano-storm pico proportions which has been profoundly misused by people with similar levels of expertise to the Northern Rivers 5G brigade.

The profound insignificance of the debate over impacts of electromagnetic radiation at low levels should have been explained by 4 Corners; but wasn't. Sean Nicholls really should have explained the way the WHO cancer ratings work. That would, at least, have put the 2011 WHO report, which did get a mention, into some context.

But perhaps that's not really his fault. The WHO cancer ratings seem deliberately designed to be confusing to anybody not used to standard scientific OCD.

Carcinogenicity rankings like 1, 2 and 3 would seem to imply that the things in level 1 are incredibly dangerous and those in level 2 are less so, and level 3 even more so. But that's not the way the WHO rankings work. Because they aren't about risk; they are about confidence in causality.

Here's the difference. If I fall off a 10 story building only concrete, then I'll die (almost certainly). When I hit the ground in a tangled bloody mess, I can be quite sure that nobody will ask ... "I wonder if the fall killed him?". That's because falling off 10 story buildings is definitively causality related to dying. But it doesn't mean we can't build 10 story buildings and make them safe. We can and we do. We can easily make falling off incredibly difficult.

So the fact that something is a class 1 carcinogen tells you absolutely nothing about how dangerous it is; nothing!

Consider Clonorchis sinensis, it's a fluke ... a worm that can infect people and animals. It's a Class 1 Carcinogen ... you get it from eating infected fish. If the fish is properly cooked, then the worm will be dead, but if you like raw fish, then you might be in trouble. The cancer that it causes is bile duct cancer. Have you ever heard of it? Probably not. I couldn't find an Australian statistic, but only about half of one percent of new cancers in the US each year are bile duct cancers. But the infection is relatively easily killed with drugs, provided it is diagnosed properly. So this is a low risk Class 1 Carcinogen.

Consider a second more complex example: Heliobacter Pylori bacteria. Around half the people in the world are infected with this bacteria. It's also a Class 1 Carcinogen on the WHO table. But the cancer that it can cause, stomach cancer, isn't in the top 10 in Australia. Most people live with the infection and won't even be aware with it, unless they get an ulcer ... or stomach cancer ... and even if they get the latter, then it may not be because of Heliobacter. So even though Heliobacter Pylori is a serious problem, worthy of considerable attention, it's not existential and it's not typically life threatening.

So discussions of whether something is a cause of cancer have little to do with risk evaluation.

The other thing that is obscured by the categorisation is dosage. That falling off a 10 story building is causally related to the death which follows is easy. But what does it tell you about falling off a 1 story building? Or off the bottom rung of a ladder? This question is tricky with falling, but it's diabolical with carcinogens. Alcohol is a Class 1 carcinogen, but will one glass of wine a week be harmful?

What makes this question so hard is that cancer is rarely a single step process.

The genes in a cell typically have to accumulate 8 or more pieces of damage before joining the dark side. A glass of wine may contribute the first piece, a steak the second, smoke from an open fire the third and the last 5 may accumulate via normal metabolic processes. So what caused the cancer? This kind of complexity is behind the famous caution of epidemiologists to make clear attributions.

At each stage during the accumulation of damage in your genes, there is the opportunity of repair or of cell suicide. Thousands of pieces of damage occur every day in every cell in your body and get repaired. Many cells simply commit suicide when they detect serious genetic damage. One of the worst first steps in pushing a cell toward cancer is when damage disables the suicide mechanism. The most common mechanism is when damage disables p53 ... a gene often knows and the guardian of the genome.

The process can be thought of as like standing eight steps from the edge of a building and throwing a coin. If it's heads, then take a step towards the edge. If it's tails, then return to your starting point ... ie the genetic damage has been repaired. To fall off, meaning to get cancer, you need a string of bad luck! In real life, some things are like biased coins; almost certain to contribute a head. Some things that happen in cells (and many of these are natural rather than delivered to the cell from outside the body) are capable of delivering a string of heads in one hit. Others can deliver just one or a few of the necessary mutations ... which is rougly a "head" in my analogy. This complexity is why it is so hard to decide both causality and risk.

The low level ionising radiation analogy

Ionising radiation (5G isn't ionising) is an accepted Class 1 Carcinogen, it's also a potent treatment of cancer. Damaging genes can indeed cause cancer, but do a little more damage and the cell dies and dead cells don't cause cancer.

Many scientists were once worried about the impacts of low levels of ionising radiation, like that spread over large areas of Europe by the Chernobyl accident of 1986. But decades of data have confirmed that any impacts are theoretical, rather than measurable. Put simply, despite large areas of Europe receiving a tiny radiation dose. You couldn't tell the difference between today's Europe and a hypothetical one that didn't get that dose. You can certainly make some assumptions and grind out a number. For example, if you use the highest risk estimates related to low level radiation, then you can estimate that over the area irradiated by Chernobyl, in among the 200 million cancers over the 80 years following the event, there may be between 11 and 20 thousand cancers due to that accident. Some people choose to worry about such risks and even use them as a reason to ban what has been the biggest source of clean electricity in Europe for decades ... nuclear power. Such people have used those fears to very effectively increase regulatory complexity to raise nuclear power reactor build prices and lengthen build times; and now they say nuclear is too slow and costly! These people have made it abundantly clear that they'd prefer a world 4 or more degrees hotter than to use nuclear power. Ditto our Greens.

5G conspiracy nutters are worthy successors in a long succession of anti-science nutters. They are a little crude and raw at present, but I'd predict they'll follow the usual route of enlisting more polished performers to put a smooth corporate sheen on their waffle. Just as climate deniers lean on "Lord" Monkton, Ian Plimer, and a mob of paid US suits, the 5G mob will eventually find somebody less obviously a nutter than Thomas Cowan. As mental carcinogens go, they will then become truly dangerous.

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