The 5G apocalypse: the misunderstood risk

5G, the fifth generation of mobile networks, is set to be faster and more reliable, with greater capacity, and lower response times than previous mobile generations. The uptake within businesses and offices will undoubtedly be very high. Along with the clear benefits this will bring, there are concerns about possible risks this could have to our health. There have, for example, been allegations that 5G will cause cancer, autism and infertility.

5G is here, having already been switched on in several UK cities, with more to come, but what are the risks to commercial insurers? Some insurers are unwilling to cover the risk but are the scare stories true, or are we starting to lose perspective on the reality of the risk?

Background

As consumers we are all exposed to wireless technology such as laptops, tablets, smart phones and wearable technology. 5G will accelerate our ability to use such devices when it is rolled out further.

In the workplace, this means improved digital workspaces, digital meetings using virtual reality, and greater remote working. We will also benefit from real-time collaborations, instant file transfers, smart printers and seamless video conferencing. We are also likely to see smart buildings with optimised lighting and heating. The efficiency and savings are endless.

For such mobile technologies to work, they require radio wave signals being transferred from masts to mobile devices. 5G requires improved transmission speeds to allow more mobiles to access faster internet speeds. The signals used at the higher frequencies required by 5G struggle to travel longer distances due to buildings, walls, rain, leaves and other objects. Therefore, traditional masts alone do not suffice and additional transmitters stationed on buildings and antennas situated close together boosts signal and capacity. These antennas could be as close together as every 10 houses and it is the bursts of radiofrequency radiation (RFR) produced by these antennas that has been subject to studies, which have concluded increased cancer risks, genetic damage, changes to the reproductive system and neurological disorders.

Reactions versus reality

5G has presented concerns to commercial insurers and this uncertainty is reflected in the market. Lloyds of London insurers excluded health damage caused by electromagnetic radiation whilst Swiss Re recommended to other insurers to write in exclusion clauses to prevent compensation for radiofrequency radiation (RFR) exposure. How real are the concerns raised?

There are studies showing lower level radiation leads to side effects including:

  • breaks in DNA structure (a cause of cancer)
  • disruption to cell metabolism
  • melatonin reduction (increasing cancer risk)
  • stress proteins being produced (causing a variety of diseases)

Commercial insurers will know many employees are using wireless technology via mobiles and laptops. People at home are also not immune given wireless connections to washing machines and central heating systems. 5G will be yet another factor throw into the mix and not in itself causative of the side effects alleged. It is the combination of low level RFR that is allegedly the cause.

Another fact producing misconceptions is 5G being classified as a Group 2B carcinogen by World Health Organisation (WHO). To put this in perspective, pickled vegetables are also in the same Group 2B and processed meat is actually in a higher group. WHO have been tracking electromagnetic radiation safety for over 20 years and no proven links to 5G have been found. Five years ago WHO established no health concerns arose from mobile phone use but they did classify all radio radiation frequency as “possibly carcinogenic”.

News within Europe appears not to assist in fuelling misconceptions. In April 2019 the Environment and Health Minister in Brussels postponed rolling out 5G to 2020 as it was not compatible with Belgian radiation safety standards. Brussels actually have the strictest telecom radiation regulations globally. The concern was not the level of radiation but the fact the level could not be measured on the antennas which are used for 5G.  In the same month Geneva’s 5G upgrade was stopped to obtain findings on potential harmful health damage. However, Geneva’s freeze is temporary. Switzerland has already had some rollout of 5G. Existing antennas can remain, only the erection of further antennas is stopped whilst further information is sought. Many countries, including within Europe, have already had a 5G rollout. No country has prevented a ban on 5G and most countries expect to have a roll out by 2020 with testing being undertaken.

Even within the UK there is news that would appear worrying to commercial insurers, In June 2019, Glastonbury Town Council opposed the introduction of 5G in the town and set up a 5G Advisory Committee to consider the safety, dangers and risks involved. The opposition was again due to lack of sufficient knowledge on the implications on health and environment. EE has already launched 5G in 6 UK cities with the aim of 10 more by the end of 2019.

Another concern was that by May 2019, 230 scientists from 40 countries had signed the ‘5G Appeal’ – seeking for the European Commission to halt the rollout of 5G. This is to actually allow independent scientists to investigate the effect of potential hazards on human health. The repeated pattern seen is the want of further information before proceeding with further rollouts.

Comment

Commercial insurers are wise to not be misled by the media frenzy and will underwrite risks according to current knowledge of the risk available. This presents a problem for covering RFR risk as the impact of the radiation on humans is unclear as shown by above concerns. The impact would be magnified for those that are traditionally more at risk, such as the pregnant and elderly. The ongoing theme is we simply do not know enough; there appears conflicting studies and it takes an expert within the relevant field to decipher the scientific papers.

History has shown how miracle technologies can have devastating implications for insurers, such as with the widespread use of asbestos. If in 20 years from now, we learn that there is a risk to 2.5% of the population, then just focusing on insurance covering workplaces using present day statistics would mean over 750,000 employees could potentially be affected and thus claim. However, knowing the uptake of 5G is so broad would mean that many outside the workplace will also be at risk.

We do not yet understand the long-term implications of RFR on the brain. Whilst mobiles have been around for over 20 years with no risk seen, 5G will bring a significant increase in the radiation. 5G in itself is not the problem, but it is the cumulative effect of yet further radiation added that raises concerns.

However, we do know the radiation involved is often misunderstood as the radio waves involved in mobile networks are non-ionising meaning they are not capable of affecting DNA or causing damage to cells. This is at the opposite end of the spectrum to ionising radiation such as x-rays where the radiation can cause health risks. The underlying 5G technology is very much the same as 4G technology.

When considered in relative terms, the 5G risk can be said to have been misunderstood and exaggerated. There are always evolving areas that commercial insurers are willing to lead on in terms of providing an offering to the market to insure the risk, a prime example being cyber risk.

To minimise risk, commercial insurers need to be aware of the health risks, which can be considered by early risk assessments using current knowledge. There are many studies ongoing as seen above and insurers will need to keep abreast of the developing knowledge in this area with the passage of time.

This article was first published by Insurance Day on 25 September 2019