Suppose you’re standing waist-deep in the sea. Waves come crashing at you, and they push you about. But your feet are anchored firmly to the ground, so you can easily keep your balance. While the waves might shake you about a bit, they can’t knock you off your spot. But you’re standing at an intersection where two wave fronts, coming together from two different directions, collide. Out of the blue, two peaks just happen to arrive from both directions at the exact same time. They combine into one big wave front right where you are standing, catching you by surprise. The big, powerful combined wave knocks you down. You lose your footing. The current is strong, and the sea takes you into deeper water. You trash about, but the water just keeps moving you on and on. After about a hundred yards, you spot another shallow spot, you plant your feet back on the ground and you stand up firmly back up again, but in a different location.
There are many waves on the surface of the sea. You can see the small ones, the ones where the successive peaks are perhaps a few metres, or a few tens of metres, apart (the distance between two successive peaks is called the length of the wave, or the wavelength, and how often a peak passes you by is called the wave’s frequency). But the water surface is also bobbing up and down with waves of much greater wavelength. But these greater wavelength waves don’t affect you. You cannot even see them. You don’t even know that they’re there, because they make the water level vary too gradually for you to be able to detect this variation. Can you imagine being able to detect a wave with a wavelength of 100km?
Just like waves on the water, electricity and magnetism (electromagnetic phenomena) can also be understood as electromagnetic waves. The best understanding we have today of electromagnetic phenomena is as electromagnetic field being composed of small packets called photons. In fact, all the smallest building blocks of matter, not just photons, are to the best of our knowledge best understood as small localized wave packets. What is a “localized wave packet”?
Here are two waves:
Here is a particle:
And here is a localized wave packet:
If you look at it from afar, a localized wave packet looks just like a particle:
But if you look at it from close up, say at length scales similar or smaller than the wavelength of the wave packet, the wave packet looks just like a wave:
So electromagnetic waves are in many ways similar to water waves, but there are some differences too. For example, the energy of a photon is always a fixed multiple of its frequency, which isn’t necessarily always the case for the water waves we discussed earlier. So photons of higher frequency (i.e. shorter wavelength) electromagnetic radiation are more energetic than photons of lower frequency (i.e. longer wavelength) radiation.
Particles – charged particles, that is, like protons and electrons in your body – are affected by electromagnetic waves just like you, swimming in the sea, are affected by the water waves. And these electromagnetic waves arrive at these particles in these wave packets we’ve explained are called photons. Atoms are about 0.03 to 0.3 nanometres in diameter and so they are affected by photons of electromagnetic waves of wavelengths similar in size to them. The electromagnetic waves which are similar in size to an atom are X-rays, whose wavelength vary between 0.01 and 10 nanometres (and whose frequencies thus are between 30PHz to 30EHz (that’s 30 peta-Hertz to 30 exa-Hertz).
Shorter electromagnetic waves (i.e. higher frequency electromagnetic waves) also affect an atom. Sometimes, X-ray photons can even knock out a charged particle from where it is so it stands up again somewhere else, just as water waves of wavelength similar in size to you can knock you from where you are standing. But even these X-ray photons are really not energetic enough most of the time to kick out anything heavier than an electron. When this happens, when electromagnetic radiation knocks out an electron in one of the atoms, forming one of the molecules, in your body, from its place, that atom, and that molecule, become ionized. They become positively charged, because they’ve just become one electron short. This is why such electromagnetic waves (a.k.a. electromagnetic “radiation”), is called ionizing radiation: because it can ionize. And ionizing molecules in your body is potentially harmful to your health: ionized molecules are reactive, and can form new chemical bonds where they aren’t supposed to.
But in order for electromagnetic waves to be capable of being ionizing, they must be short enough in wavelength to be “seen” by an electron, and energetic enough to be able to knock out the electron from where it is standing with its “feet” firmly on the ground. X-rays are the kind of electromagnetic radiation which can do this. But photons of much longer wavelengths, are not even seen by the electrons, and other particles, in your body, just like you don’t see the very long waves on the surface of the sea, nor are they energetic enough to be able to move them out of their place. But they can shake them about a bit, which macroscopicaly is observed as heating.
As an aside, even a wave with a 25,000 kilometre wavelength would jiggle you about, albeit very slowly and by a very small amount. The analogous effect of long wavelength electromagnetic waves on your body is that they also jiggle things about a little bit – which jiggling is observed as slight warming. Yes – compared to an ionization event, the thermal effect of long waves really is that small.
Just above X-rays in wavelength (or below, in frequency) is ultra-violet light, with photon wavelengths of 10 nanometres to 400 nanometres. At its shortest wavelength, it is, compared to an atom, roughly the same size as a water wave about 45 metres long is relative to you. You can still see it, it still affects you. At the longest wavelength of UV, that would be at the extreme end of UVA, the photons are, in size relative to an atom, like a 1.8km water wave is in size compared to you. A wave of that length is something you probably wouldn’t be able to see at all, unless you really tried. Just above UV light is visible light, with wavelengths of about 400 nanometres (blue light) to 800 nanometres (red light). And just above visible light, is infrared. Photons of infrared light (a.k.a. infrared “radiation” – just as visible light is visible “radiation”, I suppose) have wavelengths between 800 nanometres and 1 millimeter. Beyond infrared, and partially overlapping it, is Terahertz “radiation” (photons with wavelengths of 30 micro meters to 3 millimetres), then come millmetre waves (1 millimetre to 10 millemetre wavelengths), and then come microwaves and radio waves.
The radio waves can encompass anything from 1 millimetre to 100 kilometres in wavelength. You may have noticed that some of these ranges are overlapping, and that’s because these names are largely arbitrary, and historical. It derives from the historical applications of electromagnetic waves, as they arose. The only electromagnetic waves which are not named arbitrarily are the waves of visible light; infrared is then whatever is of (just) above red (visible) light in wavelength, ultraviolet is whatever is (just) below blue (visible) light in wavelength, and the rest of the names are just arbitrary. So infrared, instead of being defined as having wavelength from 800 nm to 1mm, could just as easily have been defined as 800 nm to 0.1mm, or 800nm to 10mm, for example.
As we progress up in wavelength and down in frequency, from X-rays, to UV, to visible light, to infrared, to Terahertz, to millimetre waves, to microwaves and radiowaves, the corresponding “radiation” becomes less and less energetic, less and less ionizing and less and less dangerous.
It is self-evident that an electromagnetic wave with a 100 kilometre wavelength is not “visible” to a bound electron; in fact, a 100 kilometre water wave would not even be visible to you, and you are much bigger than an electron. But even a photon with a wavelength of 5 millimetres looks, to an atom, just like a water wave with a 25,000 kilometre wavelength would look to you, if such a water wave were possible – 25,000km is about 4 times the radius of the Earth. Not only would such a wave have no chance of knocking you off your feet, you would stand no chance of seeing it with your naked eye, no matter how hard you tried.
And this finally brings us to the fifth generation of mobile telephony, or, “5G”, as it’s called. 5G uses a 60GHz carrier wave, which is an electromagnetic wave with the said 5 millimetre wavelength. It is just above infrared light in wavelength. Indeed, it is so close to the infrared range it might as well have been included in the definition of infrared, and it even behaves similarly in many ways. Just like your infrared TV controller, and rather less like 2.4GHz or 5GHz WiFi, it depends on line of sight visibility in order to be able to transmit information. A 5G tower uses a 100W transmitter, which is typically placed on a mast, say, 10 metres up in the air. A 5G handset might use a 2W transmitter. What these transmitters are, effectively, is 100W and 2W infrared light bulbs.
You are already exposed to infrared radiation of much greater intensity if you are using an infrared electric heater (say like this one). This one generates 1.2kW of output power, 600x as much as a 5G mobile handset, and 12x as much as a 5G mobile mast. But while a mobile phone mast is typically hundreds of metres away from you, I don’t think you’d want to place an infrared heater hundreds of meters away from yourself to keep yourself warm. And the light (“radiation”) infrared heaters emit is more energetic and of higher frequency than that emitted by 5G masts, and is thus more likely to be dangerous to you than 5G masts are. The same is true of an infrared stove (like this one, which in fact emits even more “radiation” – 2kW). The “radiation” emitted by a 100W red light bulb in fact uses higher energy and higher frequency photons still, which are even more “dangerous”, and a 100W white light bulb emits “radiation” (a.k.a. “light”) which is of higher energy and higher frequency still, and thus even more “dangerous”.
Note: we’re not saying an IR heater, or a light bulb, is dangerous – unless you stay too close to it, or touch it directly, in which case, its heat might burn you – all we’re saying is that they are more dangerous than a 5G tower is, which is therefore less dangerous than they are. It can, of course, cause you heat damage, just like a microwave oven can, but no more, and in fact less, and in the same way as, a white light bulb can.
Some might retort, yes, but there will be a lot of these 5G towers installed. Yes, that’s true. But there are already many emitters of much more energetic electromagnetic radiation of much shorter wavelength (and hence more potentially dangerous) installed all around us, with much greater density and in much greater numbers. They are called “street lights”. They are also called “light bulbs” in your house.
60GHz “radiation” is already all around us. It is used in airport security scanners, it is already used by the mobile phone industry for mobile backhaul (i.e. it allows existing mobile phone towers to relay data back to their servers wirelessly), and it is also in WiFi. The IEEE 802.11ad WiFi standard uses the 60GHz frequency band, though it is not as widely used as IEEE 802.11n, IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11g, IEEE 802.11a, or IEEE 802.11ac, because, with its more infrared-like properties, it requires line of sight visibility to transmit data and it doesn’t travel through walls. You should be aware that all heaters transmit at wavelengths different from their wavelength of peak emission; so, an infrared heater will also already be transmitting some of its neighbouring wavelengths like 60GHz.
Can electromagnetic radiation cause harm to your health? Yes. Ionising radiation can damage molecules in your body, which can cause all kinds of diseases, including cancer. Non-ionising radiation, if it is of high enough intensity, can burn you (even a 100W light bulb will burn you, if you touch it for long enough). But those who suggest that because X-rays can cause cancer, the health effects of 5G need to be investigated, are saying that because a tsunami can knock your house down, we need to investigate if the wavelets created on a bowl of soup by light breeze can knock your house down. This self-evidently cannot happen, and to suggest otherwise just shows your ignorance and exposes you as a Luddite whom anyone with the slightest bit of basic common sense will mock as a fruitcake and a loony. If you are concerned about the effects of a 100W 5G tower a hundred metres away, you should be much, much, much more concerned about using a 100W white light bulb in your living room. The photons emitted by such a light bulb are much more likely to cause you damage, and it is also much nearer to you than the mobile phone mast is.
There certainly are risks arising from 5G equipment, particularly if it’s manufactured by the Chinese Communist Party (a.k.a. Huawei). But the risk is that of the Chinese government spying on you, not of its “radiation” causing harm to your health.
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[Ed. Note: The images were created by Dr Tomasz Slivnik who gave us permission to use them in the text.]