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

effects-of-telecoms-mast-on-public-health

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

By: Abdulqadir M. Habib

 

Telecommunication is a major phenomenon in the socio-economic development of cities all over the world. Indeed, many cities in developing countries of the world are currently expanding their telecommunication infrastructure especially in the area of global system of mobile telecommunication (GSM) to take advantage of the benefits that telecommunication offers. Government should through its appropriate enforcement agencies, enforce laws related to location of masts in related to the human habitats. Also, telecommunication operators should be involved in corporate social responsibility of providing social services and facilities in the vicinity of telecommunication mast.

 

So much has been said about the incessant multiplication of telecoms mast across the country and its implications for environmental safety and public health? Telcos (telecoms companies) in Nigeria seem to favour construction of telecoms masts as against other advanced method of communication technology. But do the masts really emit electromagnetic rays that cause cancer like some are prompt to claim? What risks are associated with the telecoms industry? What safety measures should be put in place to safeguard public health? How should residents respond when telecoms masts are to be constructed near their homes? What laws/regulations should be complied with? This article attempts to shed more light on these and other issues surrounding telecoms masts.

 

Nigeria embraced digital technology in the 1980s with the introduction of Digital Switches and Transmission Systems (Radio and Optic fibre) into the network. In the early 1990s, mobile telephone services (Cellular), paging and electronic mail became additions to part of the services offered by the Nigerian Telecommunications Plc (NITEL). In 1992, NITEL was commercialised as a result of the deregulation policy of the Federal Government while the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) was established. Thereafter, the Commission commenced full market liberalisation and sector reform. It auctioned GSM licences in 2001 and these ushered new entrants into the telecommunication sector, new entrants like Multilinks, MTN, Zoom, Visafone, Airtel, Glo and Etisalat. The Commission is governed by the Nigerian Communications Commission Act No. 19, 2003. It was established with responsibility for the regulation of the communications sector in Nigeria. It is the Commission’s responsibility to specify and publish technical code and specifications in respect of communications equipment and facilities in use in Nigeria.

 

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The technical code and specifications include, among others, the promotion of safety of network facilities and the adoption of technical standards promulgated by international bodies. Section 136 (3) of the NCC Act, 2003 requires that in connection with the installation of their respective network facilities, operators shall take all reasonable steps to protect the safety of persons, property and the environment. Pursuant to the NCC Act, the NCC issued many Guidelines and Regulations among which is the Guidelines on Technical Specifications for the Installation of Telecommunications Masts and Towers, 2009. The Guidelines provide standards to be adhered to by telecommunications services providers/operators and installers of telecommunications towers towards ensuring environmental safety and sound engineering practices. Consequently, the NCC Guidelines 2009 provides that the distance for set back of towers shall be five metres from any demised property excluding the fence. The NCC Guidelines 2009 also provides that all generators within a base station must be sited five metres away from all demised properties excluding the fence. All towers sited within residential areas must conform to the set back stipulated in the Guidelines to mitigate the effect of heat, smoke and noise pollution arising from generating sets.

 

Telecommunication facilities and their impact on the environment

Mobile phone base stations and telecommunications towers emit radiofrequencies (RF), a form of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) for a distance of up to 2 miles (322 metres). They are essentially the same frequency radiation as the microwaves in a microwave oven. Mobile phones communicate with towers through radiofrequency (RF) waves. These telecommunication networks consist of interconnected elements that guarantee coverage. The elements of the network that are most visible to the public are the mobile phones and antennas that allow connection to the phones. Though some say that ‘telecommunication masts are to phone users what food is to the body’, yet there are claims that these electromagnetic radiations are injurious to health and the environment. Some have dismissed such claims because the radiofrequency (RF) and electromagnetic energy (EME) exposure levels produced by these facilities are said to be weak and that the level of emissions from cellular infrastructure is lower than emissions from some household appliances like microwave ovens and televisions. It is said further that the weight of international scientific opinion is that there is no substantiated evidence that RF emissions associated with living near a mobile phone base station or telecommunications tower poses a health risk.

 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also declared that ‘The levels of RF exposure from Base Stations and wireless networks are so low that the temperature increases are insignificant and do not affect human health’. Even at that, WHO keeps encouraging extensive research in this area through its research agendas. In Nigeria, telecommunication operators under the aegis of Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) are resolute in their belief that the electromagnetic energy emitted by these facilities are ‘harmless’ and are ‘safe for humans’. One wonders why they are so resolute when just few studies or research on the effect of EMF has been conducted in only some selected areas of Nigeria to disprove the claims.

 

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Many researchers, though disputed the claims, admitted that it will take a lot of research publications to prove that there are no or limited health risks associated with the base stations while others counselled that residential and office buildings should be located ‘hundreds of metres away from base stations’ despite the fact that the RF radiation value they obtained from their research was low.  Besides, several medical reports have linked illnesses to radiation emitted by telecommunication masts. A case in point is a medical report issued to Mr Afolabi Oyekanmi (who has a mast sited within his premises) at the Ado Ekiti University Teaching Hospital which stated that ‘It is apparent that locating a telecom mast too close to his house is detrimental and hazardous to his medical condition if not the cause’. The man was taken to the accident and emergency unit of the hospital in January 2011 with complaints of loss of consciousness associated with convulsion. The reason the doctors gave for their conclusion is that he is not a known epileptic, diabetic, hypertensive or asthmatic patient.

 

Similarly, the doctors at the University College Hospital, Ibadan linked emission of electromagnetic impulses from the masts located close to the homes of the Adebusola Ogundipe family of Ibadan to their ailments. The health of the whole family is said to be in danger. The matriarch of the family suffers from sensation of pain and tingling on her legs and in addition has been diagnosed to have developed leukaemia. Her children suffer memory loss, dizziness and bleeding from their noses. It is obvious that these ailments are not coincidental; they are a result of certain environmental factors. Therefore, we cannot overemphasise the importance of the proposal made by the Chief Medical Director of the University Teaching Hospital, Ibadan, Prof. Temitope Alonge’s for a 20 years epidemiological study that is well designed, well funded and Nigerian oriented to further research into possible health and environmental impacts of radiation emitted by telecommunication masts. This will help to eliminate confounding factors and show clear-cut evidence or otherwise of effect of EMF on health. He was optimistic that such research will help the government and regulators in policy formulation.

 

(… To be continued.)

 

Click here to read the concluding part of the article.

 

  • 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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