There is no evidence that the wave band used for 5G can cause harm, according to Maltese research into the effects of electromagnetic fields on the body.

“The risk of getting cancer by being exposed to electromagnetic fields is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as equivalent to that of drinking coffee,” one of the researchers, Charles Sammut of the Electromagnetics Research Group, an independent body within the University of Malta, says.

In 2015, the Maltese government had signed a memorandum of understanding with Chinese multinational company Huawei to launch 5G connectivity, the latest generation of cellular mobile communications that aims to speed up internet access for users. Service providers are expected to offer this facility in the near future.

Concerns have been raised over the risks to human health in the face of a global 5G roll-out. But Prof. Sammut says the effect, if any at all, is very small.

Prof. Sammut and PhD candidate Julian Bonello have been applying physics and engineering techniques to take measurements, in cooperation with researchers from biological and medical fields.

'You cannot prove a negative' 

The Electromagnetics Research Group has studied the electrical properties of biological tissue and how the body interacts with the electromagnetic fields it encounters. These properties are subject to change not only as a result of frequency but also temperature and hydration.

To operate, 5G makes use of a range of high frequencies which produce shorter waves, including millimetre waves (mmWaves), which have previously never been used in mobile technology. These fall into the spectrum of non-ionising radiation.

“Very high frequency waves (such as ultraviolet, x-rays or gamma rays) are ionising radiations, which means that the photon energy from the rays has enough energy to dislodge an electron from an atom.

“This could lead to a change in the nature of that molecule and cause its atoms to become ionised. DNA is found in the nucleus of the cell, so if this goes haywire, the cell could become a tumour cell and start propagating,” Prof. Sammut said.

“With non-ionising radiation, the energy is simply too low to cause ionisation,” he pointed out.

The thermal effect (which, at a high rotational mode, is used in microwave cooking) is the only known scientific outcome of having non-ionising radiation interact with biological tissue, he emphasised, adding that there were many studies, including of an epidemiological nature, over a number of years, which had been similarly inconclusive.

“The effect, if there is any effect, is very small and less than the range of uncertainty in the data,” he said.

“You can never prove a negative. You can prove a positive because you can observe and explain it but if there isn’t any effect, the only scientific conclusion you can come to is that you did not observe an effect.”

Group working with professionals across the field

The Electromagnetics Research Group has been working with professionals in several fields to aid medical innovations based on its findings. Through its research, the group has enabled the refining of a medical tool which utilises higher microwave power to perform ablations (removal of body tissue) in interventional radiology with minimal invasion on the patient.

The research is also being applied to improvements in imaging technologies, such as X-rays and CT scans, which currently use high-frequency ionising radiation. Work is being done to develop a system that can image breasts and identify tumours without the use of these high frequencies.

The group has received funding to develop a ‘breast hyperthermia system’ that heats the tumour to a range of between 42 - 45°C that makes it more sensitive to conventional radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

“What we hope to do by using our measurements and our designs is to further develop the ablation technique and also be able to bridge the gap in knowledge that exists between the dielectric properties as they vary with increasing temperature,” Mr Bonello remarked.

The group’s work has been published extensively in international peer-reviewed journals and conferences.

Lourdes Farrugia, a member of the EMRG and the Department of Physics, leads Malta’s first COST Action MyWAVE, a European network for advancing electromagnetic hyperthermic medical technologies.