Telecoms masts, effects on human health and environmental safety in Nigeria- Part II

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Telecoms masts, effects on human health and environmental safety in Nigeria- Part II

By: Abdulqadir M. Habib

 

(… Read the Part I of the article here)

 

The Former Minister of Health, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, during his tenure, admitted that research findings have been mixed. He then urged telecom operators to carry out local epidemiological research measuring radiofrequency exposure in the country. Despite these claims being refuted, there is said to be vast scientific, epidemiological and medical evidence that confirms that exposure to the radiations emitted from cell towers, even at low levels can have adverse effects on biological systems. Various studies have shown that even at low levels of radiation, there is evidence of damage to cell tissue and DNA. In one of such studies, it was revealed that:  During the first 3-5 years of exposure, people suffer sleep disorders, melatonin reduction which leads to immune deficiencies. From 5-7 years, neurological problems become noticeable with headaches, confusion and memory loss. After 10 years, serious disorders such as cancer occur and health damage becomes irreversible.

 

Likewise, a report from the University of Washington states: When considering the health effect of radiation from wireless transmitters, one has to consider the effect of long-term exposure. People, who live, attend school, or work close to transmitters, are constantly being exposed to the radiation for months or years. Even though the level is low, it would matter if the effects of radiofrequency radiation turn out to be cumulative. Small doses cumulate over a long period of time (i.e. add up over time) will eventually lead to harmful effects. Therefore, exposure of the general public to radiofrequency radiation from wireless transmitters should be limited to a minimal level.

 

Radiation has also been linked in a host of researches to brain tumours, depression, miscarriage, Alzheimer’s disease, and other deadly illnesses. Children are said to be at the greatest risk because of their special vulnerability during periods of development before and after birth. Over 100 physicians and scientists at Harvard and Boston University Schools of Public Health have called cell towers a radiation hazard while 33 delegate physicians from seven countries have declared cell phone towers a ‘public health emergency’. Cell phone towers expose the public to involuntary, chronic cumulative radiofrequency radiation. Harmful low levels of radiation can reach as far as a mile away from the cell tower location. In addition to the effects on humans, studies have found that animals are also affected by emissions from telecom facilities.

 

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One of such studies was on cattle. When the cattle are kept close to a base station, researchers recorded reduced milk yields, emaciations, spontaneous abortions, abnormal behavioral patterns, conjunctivitis, heart failure and still births. When cattle were moved away from the base station, their condition and milk yields improved. The severe symptoms reappeared when the cattle were moved back to their original field beside the base station. The symptoms only appeared when microwave transmitters were added to an existing television transmitter. The researchers also report the profound effects experienced by the farmer (owner of the cattle) and his family since the microwave transmitters were installed. It has been established that a bird perching on a phone transmitter would feel the heating effect very quickly.

 

With the way telecom masts are sited in Nigeria, it is uncertain how much of the heat residents suffer from. Undoubtedly, the smoke, noise and vibration (from the masts’ generating sets) are also aspects that Nigerians are familiar with. According to the matriarch of the Ogundipe family whose story was recounted above, her ailment started from heavy smoke emanating from the generator powering the mast near her house.

 

From the provisions of NESREA’s Regulations and NCC’s guidelines, it is clear that both agencies recognise that there is a level of impact telecom facilities have on human health and the environment. NESREA’s position is that a five metre set back of masts is too close to residential buildings, hence, its stipulation of a minimum of ten metres set back. NCC’s position is that since there are claims of empirical evidence showing that the radiation from a telecommunications mast is less than that emitted by television sets, the NCC’s set back rule of five metres is justified. In view of the varied opinions on the effect of EMF or radiation on human health, the question that needs to be answered is, which of the two distances can be regarded as being safe for Nigerians and which, if employed, will not adversely affect the operations of the telecom operators. Granted that WHO has said that research has not been able to prove claims of EMF having adverse health effects and some others have said the effect of emissions from telecom masts is not known yet with certainty, I am of the opinion that the likelihood of causation is high. Taking necessary precautions is a wise step to take.

 

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What if radiations from these telecom towers truly cause all the health problems discussed above? Would waiting for scientific certainty not result in some irreversible health problems? If we were to overlook seemingly low or weak radiation emissions which may later prove to be unsafe, would some Nigerians not be subjected to unnecessary suffering and avoidable deaths in years to come? According to Okoye, though research conducted by international experts on the adverse effect or health hazards of situating telecom masts and towers in Nigeria has so far proved negative, NCC must ensure that the masts are not situated close to school premises. She said this in view of the fact that studies have proved that the younger population is easily affected by radiation emissions from any available source. She therefore advised NCC to compel service providers that have masts located near or within school premises to dismantle such masts as a matter of urgency.

 

To buttress this point, Professor Henry Lai of the University of Washington said: ‘It is common sense to keep children out of harm’s way. Therefore, if there is a possibility of harm, even not proven conclusively, a precautionary approach should be taken, and antennas should be placed as far away from schools as possible. This is the same approach adopted at the international level. In December 2007 and June 2008, the International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety (ICEMS61) and 47 scientists who were signatories to the Benevento Resolution stated in the follow-up Venice Resolution that ‘… we are compelled to confirm the existence of non-thermal effects of electromagnetic fields on living matter, which seem to occur at every level of investigation from molecular to epidemiological…’ and urged the immediate adoption of precautionary measures to protect the public.

 

The implication of the foregoing is that the farther distance for setbacks in the siting of base stations should be adopted as the Agencies and the legislature seek to review the conflicting regulations. Consequently, we submit that of the two positions, NESREA’s regulation of 10 metres set back is more favoured. Adopting this standard will also make it easier for the operators to comply with the provisions of the two agencies with respect to heat, smoke and noise emitted by generators powering the telecom masts. Difficulty however arises when cognizance is given to the evolving demographics over the 25-year life span of a tower or mast. Telecom operators have reasonably argued that areas that were initially sparsely populated could easily become densely populated over time leading to the violation of requirements, such as the 10 metre set back distance and height specifications for towers and masts. They complained that in many instances, operators are unable to comply with the proposed set back of 12 or 10 metres. While the debate and search for scientific evidence for the full impacts of telecoms masts on public health continue, relevant authorities and telcos must join hands to ensure that the lives of residents where the telecoms masts are situated are protected and that public health is not compromised.

 

  • Credit: Tolulope Ogboru, NESREA and NCC regulations on telecommunication masts: implementing the precautionary principle.
  • Editing was done by Kunlere Idowu.

 


Abdulqadir, a CCNA certified network associate, zoologist in training and social activist is passionate about general life sciences and the preservation of our environment. He volunteers with wastesmart.org and writes from Zaria, Kaduna.


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Kunlere Idowu

Kunlere is an environment and sustainable development strategist with years of active experience in environmental compliance monitoring and enforcement. You may follow him on Twitter via @kunlere_idowu

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