The Truth—Or Lack Thereof—Behind the Most Common 5G Myths and Conspiracies
The rise of 5G wireless technology has led to faster speeds on mobile phones and new types of affordable internet service. But it’s also fueled public backlash, skepticism, and some seriously bizarre conspiracy theories with no basis in fact.
Health experts agree that 5G is not bad for your health, and it definitely won’t give you COVID-19. But conspiracy theorists love to speculate about cellular technology like 5G (and 4G, 3G, and 2G before it), and the rumors around 5G are particularly unique. Here’s a quick rundown of the most common 5G conspiracy theories and whether they should be cause for alarm.
5G conspiracy 1—5G causes COVID-19
5G and COVID-19 emerged around the same time (2019–2020), and amid the paranoia surrounding the global pandemic, this coincidence fueled speculation that 5G and COVID-19 might somehow be linked.
Prominent figures like R&B singer Keri Hilson and actor Woody Harrelson have publicly drawn spurious connections between the two, and for a while, all sorts of scaremongering rumors about vaccines and masks were spreading on social media—before tech companies shut most of it down.9
True or False? Definitely false
5G is definitely not the cause of COVID-19. The novel coronavirus is a molecular parasite, a physical thing passed from human to human. 5G is a cellular technology built on radio waves. Numerous medical experts and authorities—including the World Health Organization and the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection—have pointed out that there’s no connection between the two whatsoever.10, 11
Learn more about the differences between 4G and 5G to get a sense of how 5G works and where it fits in with wireless technology as a whole.
5G conspiracy 2—5G gives you cancer
Like all wireless technologies, 5G uses electromagnetic radio waves to carry our phone data. Electromagnetic fields (EMF) are a form of radiation, and skeptics have long worried that overexposure to EMF is bad for your health.
According to an investigation by The New York Times, rumors that radio waves could lead to brain cancer first gained widespread traction in the early 2000s when a Florida physicist claimed in a report to a local school district that high-frequency radio waves cause tissue damage to the brain.1
True or False? False
The Florida doctor’s report has since been widely debunked by doctors and medical researchers. As the Times article points out, his report failed to take into account that the skin acts as a barrier for high-frequency radio waves of the sort commonly used in 5G networks. They literally just bounce off us. Since we’re not absorbing these frequencies, it’s not possible for them to harm our brains and other internal organs.
Of course, some types of radiation are legitimately dangerous. X-rays and gamma rays are examples of ionizing radiation, which is powerful enough to literally break down our DNA. 5G frequencies, however, are a form of non-ionizing radiation, similar to the radio waves that we use for television, radio broadcasts, Wi-Fi, cordless phones, baby monitors, and more. So wear your sunscreen and stop burning down 5G towers.
5G conspiracy 3—5G causes burns on skin
One of the big reasons 5G has been the subject of rumor among conspiracy theorists is because it uses a higher spectrum of radio frequencies that previously weren’t adopted by cellular networks (although they have been in use for other applications, like airport security).
While 4G phones typically operate on frequency bands below 6 GHz, the most advanced type of 5G runs between 24 and 47 GHz. These high frequencies are known as millimeter waves because their wavelengths are tiny, spanning between one to 10 millimeters. And according to health experts, millimeter waves may potentially pose some risk because they can heat up the eyes or skin when deployed in powerful doses.2
True or False? Based in truth, but false
Multiple reports in recent years have called for more research into millimeter-wave 5G and its potential safety hazards.2, 3 But does that mean 5G towers are actually causing harm? Not really.
5G cell towers have a limited capacity for emitting signals, and the signals that do get broadcast aren’t nearly powerful enough to burn you—the exposure of even a standard household light bulb is a million times more intense.12 Millimeter waves are so weak, in fact, that they’re barely able to carry an actual signal to your phone. They operate over a line-of-sight range and lose their intensity exponentially as they get farther away from the broadcast tower.
Even people who are regularly exposed to radio waves at the source don’t have problems. Since 2019, government records show that there haven’t been any reported cases of workers being burned by radio waves while servicing radio and cellular towers; injuries and deaths more commonly occur when a technician falls from a tower.4, 5, 6
Even as 5G networks grow, the risk of millimeter wave radio frequencies remains minimal. In fact, most cellular companies have pivoted away from millimeter-wave networks to prioritize different types of 5G—like C-band spectrum—which use lower frequencies, have better range, and don’t pose the same potential risks.
5G conspiracy 4—5G means more radio towers in your community
As cellular carriers roll out 5G, they need to deploy entirely new infrastructure across the country to support it. Since 5G uses higher radio frequencies than 4G, its range is often shorter than what you can get on 4G. That results in cell carriers installing a lot more small-cell 5G transmitters, which are basically smaller versions of traditional radio towers.
There’s been lots of public backlash to this massive buildout in parts of the United States, with neighbors dismissing 5G small-cell transmitters as eyesores that ruin scenery and threaten property values.7
Truth or Fiction? Truth
5G small-cell transmitters are generally inconspicuous—some are designed to fit discreetly onto street lights—so it’s hard to say what their long-term cosmetic impact will be.
But even if you can’t see them, it’s true that there are and will likely be a lot more of them on the streets in the coming years. And if you set the kooky conspiracy theories aside, it’s clear that the increasing ubiquity of this cellular connectivity raises all sorts of legitimate questions about sustainability, surveillance, and the role Wi-Fi technology plays in our daily lives.
- William J. Broad, The New York Times, “The 5g Health Hazard That Isn’t,” July 16, 2019. Accessed March 30, 2022.
- NYU Wireless, New York University, “Mmwave Health Effects,” May 5, 2017. Accessed March 30, 2022.
- Dariusz Leszczynski, Reviews on Environmental Health, “Physiological Effects of Millimeter-Waves on Skin and Skin Cells: An Overview of the To-Date Published Studies,” August 24, 2020. Accessed March 30, 2022.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration, United States Department of Labor, “Accident Search Results: Communication Tower.” Accessed March 30, 2022.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration, United States Department of Labor, “Accident Search Results: Radio Tower.” Accessed March 30, 2022.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration, United States Department of Labor, “Accident Search Results: Cell Tower.” Accessed March 30, 2022.
- Robert McCartney, The Washington Post, “The Ugly Side of 5G: New Cell Towers Spoil the Scenery and Crowd People’s Homes,” July 12, 2021. Accessed March 30, 2022.
- Umar Shakir, The Verge, “AT&T Begins Testing and Deployment of Discreet 5g Radios on City Street Lamp Posts,” February 25, 2022. Accessed March 30, 2022.
- Ryan Broderick, BuzzFeed News, “A Conspiracy Theory That 5G Is Causing the Coronavirus Is Spreading Alongside the Pandemic,” April 3, 2020. Accessed March 30, 2022.
- World Health Organization, “COVID-19: 5G Mobile Networks Do Not Spread COVID-19,” April 8, 2020. Accessed April 13, 2022.
- International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, “COVID-19 and RF EMF,” April 2020. Accessed April 13, 2022.
- Kurt Behnke, Grandmetric, “Is This Anything to Worry About? 5G Health Issues Explained,” March 26, 2019. Accessed April 13, 2022.
Author - Peter Holslin
Peter Holslin has more than a decade of experience working as a writer and freelance journalist. He graduated with a BA in liberal arts and journalism from New York City’s The New School University in 2008 and went on to contribute to publications like Rolling Stone, VICE, BuzzFeed, and countless others. At HighSpeedInternet.com, he focuses on covering 5G, nerding out about frequency bands and virtual RAN, and producing reviews on emerging services like 5G home internet. He also writes about internet providers and packages, hotspots, VPNs, and Wi-Fi troubleshooting.
Editor - Rebecca Lee Armstrong
Rebecca Lee Armstrong has more than six years of experience writing about tech and the internet, with a specialty in hands-on testing. She started writing tech product and service reviews while finishing her BFA in creative writing at the University of Evansville and has found her niche writing about home networking, routers, and internet access at HighSpeedInternet.com. Her work has also been featured on Top Ten Reviews, MacSources, Windows Central, Android Central, Best Company, TechnoFAQ, and iMore.