The fear of radiation emissions from mobile base stations and mobile phones have led to several international scientific studies. CHIMA AKWAJA takes a look at the different literatures by international telecommunications, health and regulatory agencies on the subject matter and their various conclusions.
Several weeks ago, the House of Representatives passed the second reading of the Telecommunications Electromagnetic Frequency Emission (EMF) Protection Bill sponsored by the House Committee on Science and Technology. The bill is seeking among other issues, to declare that EMF emissions from telecommunications base stations are harmful to humans.
Mr. Deolu Ogunbanjo, President, National Association of Telecommunications Subscribers (Natcoms) acknowledging the fact that the lawmakers are to make laws for the overall benefit of the people, said, "they are to do so with a lot of decorum, due diligence and due process in accordance with international best practices.
Nigeria as a nation cannot operate in isolation but within the comity of nations that have embraced the modern worldwide technology of Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM)."
He urged the lawmakers: "To engage health organisations, commissions, agencies and the public in wide consultations through the public hearing instrument of the national assembly in order to extensively lay the facts and discuss this all important issue of electromagnetic frequency emission (a non-ionizing radiation) from telecommunications base stations".
Recently, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) organised the first West African conference on EMF exposure and health, where it had in attendance the ministers of Communications Technology and Health, telecoms health experts from the World Health Organisation, telecoms directorate of ECOWAS Commission, International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation (ICNIRP), chairmen of House Committees on Communications, Science and Technology and several others.
Fresh insights on emissions
According to Honourable Abiodun Akinlade, chairman, House committee on Science and Technology: "I must first confess that this international conference couldn't have come at a better time than now. This conference therefore, will be of immense value in providing the much needed awareness on current scientific facts and findings in the field of EMF emissions, which can serve as source of reference to our members in the course of deliberations on the bill", Akinlade said.
The Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Dr. Eugene Juwah said Nigeria has about 20,000 base stations serving over 90 million subscribers. In most developed countries, base transceiver stations (BTS) are mounted on the roof tops because of the preponderance of high-rise buildings which are not enough in Nigeria.
Telecommunications have become an integral part of our life; providing services that range from phone connection, entertainment, information and learning over a broad range of media. This wireless technology relies upon an extensive network of fixed antennae, or base stations, relaying information via radio frequency waves or signals that travel at the speed of light.
Juwah said apart from telecoms base station facilities, broadcast towers, radar facilities and even domestic electrical and electronic home appliance such as microwave ovens, television, radio and even remote controls also act as sources of radio frequency emissions.
Noting that steady increase in public concerns pertaining to the possible effects of electromagnetic radiation emanating from telecommunication equipment/infrastructure on human health led the Commission to organise the international conference on EMF, he said "It should be noted that people are often misled to think that electromagnetic emissions from telecommunication facilities is the same as or similar to nuclear and radioactive radiations".
Juwah said several reasons for these public fears include media announcements of new and unconfirmed scientific studies, leading to a feeling of uncertainty and a perception that there may be unknown or undiscovered hazards.
"It is the responsibility of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to ensure that there are guidelines and regulations governing all aspects of telecommunications service provision, including the installation of masts / towers and radio frequency exposure limits".
The Minister of Communications Technology, Mrs. Omobola Johnson in her opening paper said recognising the enormous concerns, which have been expressed both locally and internationally, on whether exposure to electromagnetic fields poses any health hazards to humans; and determined to ensure that the people of West Africa are well advised as to the facts regarding the issue, the Federal Government of Nigeria decided to take the initiative to bring about this conference.
"Given the large number of mobile phone users, it is important therefore to investigate, understand and communicate any potential public health impact from mobile phones which work by transmitting radio waves through a network of fixed antennas called base transceiver stations (BTS)."
Low emissions from phones and BTS
While mobile phones are becoming beneficial as a tool for monitoring and improving health, the radio frequency (RF) emission radiated by phones has called into question its effect on human health. In the last 15 years several researches have been conducted to establish mobile phone usage health risks. Globally, the number of cell phone subscriptions is estimated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to be five billion.
Over time, the number of cell phone calls per day, the length of each call, and the amount of time people use cell phones has increased. Cell phone technology has also undergone substantial changes. Cell phones emit radio frequency energy, a form of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation, which can be absorbed by tissues closest to where the phone is held.
The amount of radio frequency energy a cell phone user is exposed to depend on the technology of the phone, the distance between the phone's antenna and the user, the extent and type of use, and the user's distance from cell phone towers.
According to Johnson, "Mobile phones are low-powered radio frequency transmitters, operating at frequencies between 450 and 2700 MHz with peak powers in the range of 0.1 to 2 watts.
"The handset only transmits power when it is turned on. The power (and hence the radio frequency exposure to a user) falls off rapidly with increasing distance from the handset. A person using a mobile phone 30-40cm away from his or her body - for example when text messaging, accessing the Internet, or using a "hands free" device - will therefore have a much lower exposure to radio frequency fields than someone holding the handset against the ear," she said.
Professor Temitope Alonge, Chief Medical Officer, University College Hospital, Ibadan, on the other hand called for local research on the effects of EMF on health to guide policy formulation. He called for research on Nigerian telecoms industry which should be indexed on Pubmed, the largest medical database of publications.
Alonge said based on current perspective on EMF and health, base station and wireless network EMF exposure is very low and that there has been no significant effect on human health.
According to a 2002 World Health Organisation study entitled 'Establishing a Dialogue on Risks from Electromagnetic Fields", the report said "Unless an effective system of public information and communication among scientists, governments, the industry and the public is established, new EMF technologies will be mistrusted and feared."
Dr. Jack Rowley, Senior Director, Research and Sustainability, GSM Association also cited a Health protection UK 2012 report which stated that; 'In summary, although a substantial amount of research has been conducted in this area, there is no convincing evidence that RF field exposure below guideline levels causes health effects in adults or children.'
ICNIRP is an independent scientific organisation that provides guidance and advice on the health hazards of non-ionizing radiation; develops international guidelines on limiting exposure to non-ionizing radiation that are independent and science based; and provides science based guidance and recommendations on protection from non-ionizing radiation exposure.
According to Dr. Paolo Vecchi, of the National Institute of Health, Rome, Italy and immediate past chairman of ICNIRP, "It is the opinion of ICNIRP, that the scientific literature published since the 1998 guidelines has provided no evidence of any adverse effects below the basic restrictions and does not necessitate an immediate revision of its guidance on limiting exposure to high frequency electromagnetic fields".
Health organisations studies
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a component of the World Health Organisation, recently classified radio frequency fields as "possibly carcinogenic to humans", based on limited evidence from human studies, limited evidence from studies of radio frequency energy and cancer in rodents, and weak mechanistic evidence (from studies of genotoxicity, effects on immune system function, gene and protein expression, cell signaling, oxidative stress, and apoptosis, along with studies of the possible effects of radio frequency energy on the blood-brain barrier).
The American Cancer Society (ACS) states that the IARC classification means that there could be some risk associated with cancer, but the evidence is not strong enough to be considered causal and needs to be investigated further.
Individuals who are concerned about radio frequency exposure can limit their exposure, including using an ear piece and limiting cell phone use, particularly among children.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) states that the weight of the current scientific evidence has not conclusively linked cell phone use with any adverse health problems, but more research is needed.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for regulating the safety of machines and devices that emit radiation (including cell phones), notes that studies reporting biological changes associated with radio frequency energy have failed to be replicated and that the majority of human epidemiologic studies have failed to show a relationship between exposure to radio frequency energy from cell phones and health problems.
The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that, although some studies have raised concerns about the possible risks of cell phone use, scientific research as a whole does not support a statistically significant association between cell phone use and health effects.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) concludes that there is no scientific evidence that wireless phone use can lead to cancer or to other health problems, including headaches, dizziness, or memory loss.
According to NCC Chairman, "minimal studies have been conducted worldwide and minimal platforms have been provided for the region to debate on possibility of mobile communication having adverse impact on human health. Relevant international bodies are continually monitoring research findings on the field of EMF exposure and its effects on human health."
In most developed countries, BTS are mounted on the roof tops because of the preponderance of high-rise buildings which are not enough in Nigeria. Juwah notes that the siting of masts and towers takes cognizance of provisions of the Act and is guided by provisions of the Collocation and Infrastructure Sharing Guidelines of the Commission in such a way as to minimise their number, protect and promote public safety, and mitigate adverse visual impacts on the community.
The Commission published its Guideline on the Technical Specifications for the Installation of Masts and Towers which operators must adhere to. This is to protect the interest (in safety concerns) of the general public and safety of personnel working in the industry.
Non-compliance with the mandatory provisions of these guidelines is deemed an offence punishable under relevant provisions of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003; the Nigerian Communications (Enforcement Processes) Regulations 2005 and other applicable laws.
The Nigerian regulator believes that people are often misled to think that electromagnetic emissions from telecommunication facilities are the same as or similar to nuclear and radioactive radiations. Several reasons for these public fears include media announcements of new and unconfirmed scientific studies, leading to a feeling of uncertainty and a perception that there may be unknown or undiscovered hazards..
To douse the public fears of RF emissions, both NCC and NESREA agreed that all new base stations to be built in future must observe 10 metre setback.
Also, NESREA will no longer insist on 18 months duration for telecoms service providers to carry out Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report but 12 weeks only. This directive may be as a result of NESREA's inability to establish the health risks which it cited for its actions on sealing the base stations.