Over the past few weeks, many of us have felt like we've learned so much about Covid-19 that we are pretty much virus experts ourselves. While the evidence-based messages of social distancing and washing our hands seems to have reached many, other unscientific myths are spreading that pander to our innate fear of the invisible.
Conspiracy theories usually arise because they provide people with simple explanations for complex and frightening events. As humans, we tend to overestimate the threat posed by things we can't see as our imaginations run wild about where they might be or what they might be doing to us. The coronavirus pandemic seems to have created the perfect incubator to bring together the complex world of the invisible by mixing an old conspiracy theory in with the new. Using social media as a catalyst, these theories seem to be spreading faster than coronavirus itself! The big one making the rounds falsely suggests that 5G telecommunication signals are suppressing our immune system and helping Covid-19 to take hold.
Our immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues and organs that helps our body fight infectious disease caused by invading pathogens like viruses and bacteria. There have been numerous studies investigating whether exposure to low-level radio waves from telecommunications sources like 5G can impact the immune system. These studies have looked in detail at any effect there may be on antigens, antibodies and oxidative stress. There is no established evidence that low-level radio wave exposure from 5G or other wireless telecommunications can affect our immune system, cause any other long-term or short-term health effects or show changes in immune function.
As most people don't even understand how their phone works never mind the electromagnetic spectrum that it uses, it's easy to only hear the technical jargon that may sound scary. For example, 5G (where the G stands for generation) networks produce radiation – a word known to most of us in only a negative context.
There are actually two types of radiation.
Ionising radiation such as that used in x-rays and UV rays, which has enough energy to remove an electron from or "ionise" molecules. In large enough and/or frequent enough doses this could lead to damage in the DNA of our cells. This is why we should wear sunscreen outdoors and limit the number of x-rays we have to stay safe.
The other type is non-ionising radiation, which lacks enough energy to break apart any chemical bonds, including in our cells and tissues, and so doesn't cause damage. This is the type that our mobile phones use.
Research into 5G and its lack of effect on our cells and tissues is well-published but usually behind academic firewalls using complex jargon and so away from most of the public's reading list. Last month the independent organisation The International Commission on Non‐Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) published a public report following a seven-year-long scientific study showing it found no evidence suggesting 5G technologies posed a risk to human health.
Does that mean your phone can't spread Covid-19? Not necessarily, but it's not the 5G that's to blame. Your phone is a surface, and one that you touch with your hands multiple times a day. During a pandemic there is a small chance that an infected person could cough, sneeze or talk into your phone leaving droplets for you to pick up when you use it. To minimise your risk, make sure you disinfect your phone often using a cleaning wipe or 70 per cent alcohol solution on a cloth. In this Covid-19 pandemic, your constantly touched phone may be dangerous, but its non-ionising radiation isn't.