Every newspaper, talk show and Facebook timeline is currently awash with news of the corona crisis - and we can expect to see this continue for a while yet. Just for a change, instead of a microbial threat, let's talk about an electromagnetic threat that has reared its head: 5G.
5G phone masts are currently being set alight all over the Netherlands. First, in the Brabant village of Liessel, then in Nuenen, after which the 5G pyromania virus spread to Gelderland, Rotterdam, and this Easter Weekend to Groningen and Flevoland. The current count is some ten incidents.
You won't be surprised to learn that the internet is riddled with conspiracy theories, of every conceivable flavor. The fluoride in our drinking water is poison, the Illuminati are the true rulers of the world, every politician is really a puppet (or reptile) and the Matrix really exists. In this respect, the 5G tin foil caps have inherited the mantle of the classic ‘mind control using radio waves’. The story is always that electromagnetic radiation is in some way harmful.
It really sucks to find out that the internet crazies have a point. For me, it all started when I read an article in the Metro newspaper in which an anti-5G demonstrator cited a scientific article in the Lancet. And, blow me down if that article didn't exist: “Planetary electromagnetic pollution: it is time to assess its impact”.
The Lancet article cited nineteen studies of the negative impact on health. It touched on all kinds of things: microbiological studies showing that telephone microwaves influence brain glucose metabolism and the immune system, large-scale studies in rats showing that heart and brain cancers occur with greater frequency after daily exposure to radio waves and, as the cherry on the cake, the article even quoted a population study showing a correlation between the distance a person lives to a phone mast and the average amount of DNA damage.
In this way, the researchers make, in my view, a convincing case for a plausible health risk arising as a consequence of exposure to too much electromagnetic radiation. Since then I've been unable to shake the feeling that this is a serious problem, one that we laugh off because a number of conspiracy theorists have run with the idea. As the title says, “it is time to assess its impact”: long-term studies must be done and a serious look must be taken at how this is influencing policymaking.
The absence of any public response (except, of course, for the destruction of public infrastructure) may in part be due to the fact that scientists are not good at spurring people to deal with a crisis. In other words, scientists have a number of un-mediagenic tendencies. They write up everything clinically, calmly and neutrally and use no clickbait headlines - otherwise the Lancet article would have been entitled 'Planetary electromagnetic pollution: we’re all going to die’.
It seems to me that health scientists, like climate scientists, have more lessons to learn from the media about how to motivate people (scare them) to deal with a crisis, before the sea reclaims the land and we all die of headaches caused by microwaves.
Postscript Leander van Eekelen
After publication of this column I was criticized by a number of people, per email or in person, for my message, in reference to the Lancet article, that the effects of electromagnetic radiation can be hazardous in certain circumstances. I will summarize this criticism here, and add my own nuance to the column where I deem it necessary in hindsight.
The article largely bases its claims on a cited scientific review - by the same authors - in which it is stated that 68 percent of the studies they found (1,546) ‘demonstrated significant biological or health effects associated with exposure to man-made electromagnetic fields.’
This seems like a large number, but people rightly pointed out to me the fact that in the world of scientific publications, the focus lies on positive results - the author simply shrugs his shoulders when confronted with all those papers that don’t find any ‘statistically significant effects’ -, which leads to a bias towards positive results. In addition, the authors conclude their review with the statement that they will “map out the effects in follow-up studies.” This gives rise to the suspicion that all significant results were simply heaped together for the review and that the authors didn’t consider how serious the effects actually are. And finally, it’s important to note that the review isn’t published in a peer-reviewed journal: colleagues didn’t have the opportunity to pass a critical judgement on the publication.
I had my own reservations about the Lancet article as well, but I deleted them from the original column due to a lack of space. I didn’t check how widely held the opinions expressed by the authors are. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by a minority opinion published in a respected journal. In addition, the Lancet presents non-definitive results: DNA damage and oxidative stress associated with exposure to electromagnetic radiation doesn’t automatically imply a significant effect on public health. There are thousands of things in daily life that are bad for you, ranging from sunlight to sitting on your desk chair for too long.
Despite all the criticism directed at the Lancet article - which, in hindsight, is much less scientifically sound than I thought at first - I remain convinced that we should launch long-term studies that quantify the effect of man-made electromagnetic radiation. The outcome could be that sitting still during the corona crisis is more hazardous to your health, but prevention is better than cure.