Information’s misadventures

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An idea, once released, has a life of its own, irrespective of whether it is right or wrong

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14 May 2020 | 0

I have spoken recently of genies being released from bottles that will not go back in.

This has been in the context of certain long held beliefs and preconceived notions around working practices as we adapt to the current public health measures. Not only in relation to working from home, but also the need for face to face meetings, as well as practices such as hotdesking and coworking spaces.

“People mistakenly believe that the radio frequency emissions from 5G somehow heat, cook, or otherwise disrupt the function of the human body, with some even saying it supresses the immune system and thus diminishes resistance to COVID-19, among other things”

 

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While there will always be a spectrum of adoption and acceptance of such changes, the declaration by Twitter that even as it expects to open some offices in September, that some employees will be allowed to work from home permanently is perhaps indicative of a more widely growing acceptance.

“We were uniquely positioned to respond quickly and allow folks to work from home given our emphasis on decentralisation and supporting a distributed workforce capable of working from anywhere,” said a Twitter spokesperson.

This will have implications for commercial property markets everywhere, as the world waits for a vaccine or an effective treatment for COVID-19.

However, more worrying genies that simply refuse to go back in their bottles are also floating about.

One of these are the health concerns over 5G technologies.

It was most worrying to see it reported that senior Sinn Féin figures, Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD and former senator Máire Devine, are putting their names to an objection letter for a mast that will carry 5G technologies. Their letter is reported to cite “major and justifiable concerns for public health”.

So seriously has this issue been viewed, that the CEO of Three Ireland has Three Ireland was reported as writing to the Minister of Communications, seeking assistance to tackle the “dangerous misinformation” being spread about 5G. 

Without getting into the detail of exactly where these so-called health concerns came from, because different sources cite different origins, but there is no doubt that all are underpinned by fundamental misunderstanding of the science and basic physics behind it.

In no so-called scientific appraisal of the health concerns around 5G have I seen any proper context put on the effects. Not once have I seen it contextualised for the fact that the frequencies in use for 5G have been in use for years, in microwave point-to-point communications technologies, traffic radar guns, specialist measurement equipment and body scanners. This has meant that there is already a wealth of knowledge about the basic operation of technology and its immediate affects.

Granted, 5G will use those technologies on a wider spectrum (excuse the pun) than before, but again, in the broader context, risks are negligible.

By way of example, we are all, as Irish citizens, exposed to an annual ionising radiation dose of around 4,037 microsievert (msv). Of that dose, 86% comes from natural sources, such as naturally occurring decaying radioactive elements, such as in soil, etc, and normal background radiation. The artificial elements come from the likes of medical scanners, including x-rays, etc.

The biggest single dose item for an Irish citizen comes from radon gas in homes (1,995 microsievert), due to the natural geology of the country.

These are all findings from a 2014 report from Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII). All of this refers to what is called ionising radiation, that is radiation that is energetic enough to cause ionising action in atoms.

A bit of further context is that the highest recorded naturally occurring single dose was 800 msv on a Brazilian beach. A consistent 700 msv is regarded as sufficient for evacuation of a nuclear facility. But that four thousand odd, is absorption over a year.

The entire spectrum of radiation involved in telecommunications is what is known as radio frequency radiation (RFR), that is radiation that is not energetic enough to cause an ionising effect in atoms, or non-ionising. All RFR can do, in high concentrations, is cause atoms or molecules to vibrate, or to put it another way, to heat them. This is how the microwave oven works.

And this is perhaps where much of the 5G worry comes from. People mistakenly believe that the radio frequency emissions from 5G somehow heat, cook, or otherwise disrupt the function of the human body, with some even saying it supresses the immune system and thus diminishes resistance to COVID-19, among other things.

This is simply not the case. To achieve a warming effect that is even measurable, would require orders of magnitude more energy than is employed by 5G base stations. Also, the millimetre waves used are generally absorbed by the skin, with little penetrating further, to no effect.

A typical microwave oven operates about at 800-1000 watts to heat your dinner, inside a Faraday Cage, over a distance of around 3-400mm. A 5G base station puts out about 20-30 watts in diffuse patterns through the atmosphere over effective ranges of 1-3 km.

But again, in context of ionising versus this, non-ionising radiation, there is no real comparison. 5G simply does not have the power or concentration of energy to be a hazard to human health in the manner attributed to it. It is almost negligible when compared to the background radiation we are all exposed to everyday by simply existing on the surface of this planet, as evidenced by the RPII report.

Admittedly, 2G and 3G technologies have only been around just long enough to understand whether there might be any carcinogenic affects, while 4G (only in widespread use for about 10 years or so) is less well studied. However, rigorous testing with continually improved and refined methods still cannot find any evidence of danger for humans in the use of these radio frequency bands.

Even those studies that have been conducted to establish possible affects on lab rats and mice tend to use extremely high concentrations and exposures to achieve results. As such, they are looking for a principle, as opposed to modelling the kinds of exposures that would be expected even in the likes of technicians servicing 3G/4G/5G towers, let alone the average citizen in an urban setting.

So even when such studies find an affect and say that the lab rats saw a 10-, 100- or more-fold increase in the likelihood of a carcinogenic effect, it is often the difference between 0.0000001 and 0.000001% of a chance, or what is deemed statistically significant proportions. When dealing with such micro and nano divisions, a 100-fold increase still does not necessarily add up to a significant threat. The natural incidence of brain tumours is around 7 per hundred thousand population — 0.00007%.

With all of this in mind, it is deeply disappointing to think that elected representatives are mistaking a clamour of voices for substantiated concerns. With no widespread scientific support for health concerns, there is no basis for objection on these grounds.

Furthermore, it is undermining the public debate to allow people to take such concerns into the political arena without someone disabusing them of the notions in the first place. In the same way that we are, as a society, still paying for the effects of baseless anti-vaccine sentiment, unless such baseless scaremongering is tackled as soon as it is aired, it will lead to dangerous consequences such as already seen with mobile masts being attacked in rural settings.

As a post-script, an important ruling has come from the High Court which is pertinent.

Ruling on the issue of a challenge brought by Gemma O’Doherty and John Waters to laws introduced as part of the COVID-19 response, Mr Justice Charles Meenan decided the pair could not bring a full judicial review case.

“In making their case for leave the applicants, who have no medical or scientific qualifications or expertise, relied upon their own unsubstantiated views, gave speeches, engaged in empty rhetoric and sought to draw an historic parallel with Nazi Germany – a parallel which is both absurd and offensive,” said Justice Meenan.

“Unsubstantiated opinions, speeches, empty rhetoric and a bogus historical parallel are not a substitute for facts.”

One would hope this triumph of law and sense over the clamour of voices citing nonsense and hearsay will stand as a message to others pushing bogus agendas.

A further point of note is that Sinn Féin TD Ó Snodaigh is now saying he does not stand over the content of the letter, claiming to have not seen the text.

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