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Telecom Masts - One Angel, Many Goblins [analysis]
[April 19, 2010]

Telecom Masts - One Angel, Many Goblins [analysis]

Apr 19, 2010 (Daily Independent/All Africa Global Media via COMTEX) -- The advent of the Global System for Mobiletelecommunication (GSM) is a 'good' development, especially in Nigeria where it has made what used to be status symbol a necessity - the telephone - and further brought the nation nearer to the global village. But Head, IT Telecom, EMMA OKONJI, writes that this technology seems, going by recent developments, to be turning to a two-edged sword with the health risks posed by the handsets and the masts that litter the nation's skies Since the commercial introduction of mobile phones to the Nigerian telecommunications market in 2001, the health implications of radioactive emissions from base stations and phones have posed serious concern to Nigerians.

Most Nigerians, both schooled and unschooled, believe that accumulation of such emissions in the body system over a long period of time could pose serious health risks to phone users and people living close to telecom base stations.

Some are of the view that emissions from base stations and mobile phones could cause cancer of the heart, cancer of the breast, and acute headache, as well as partial deafness, especially with phones of low quality that easily generate heat and burning sensation to the ear, when long conversations are held over the phone.

Despite the perceived fear, telecom operators are busy erecting masts and installing them at various locations that are close to houses, markets, schools, churches and offices. Some even instal on buildings where people live. In the same vein, phone manufacturers are busy manufacturing new phones, both standard and sub-standard ones.

Some Nigerians invite telecom operators to erect masts on available spaces close to residential buildings and collect fees from the operators, undermining the perceived health risks, since money is involved.

The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) had in the past held stakeholders' fora where experts in health and telecommunications were invited to educate Nigerians about radiations and emissions.

But amid all of these, telecom operators have continued to hold their ground that radioactive emission from mobile phones and telecom masts remain harmless to human beings, and they have tried at various fora to educate the masses, with the aim of allaying such fears.

Director, Regulatory Affairs, Zain Nigeria, Osondu Nwokoro, who spoke with Sunday Independent on the issue, insisted that radioactive emissions from telecom masts and mobile phones, pose no health risk to people.

According to him, the effect of radiations on users of mobile phones and on those living close to base stations has been the subject of debate at various levels in virtually every country where telecommunications services are offered.

He said various social interests and health groups held the view that the radiations are dangerous to human health and supported their position with findings of some scientific research initiatives.

"Other institutions like the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF) - the representative body of manufacturers of mobile telephony equipment and accessories such as Ericsson, Motorola, Alcatel - and the GSM Association, the Trade Group of telecommunications companies that deploy the GSM technology in providing mobile telephony services, on their part, state that there are no discernible side effects from the radiations. They equally refer to favourable research findings as well as statements from renowned international agencies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Commission on Non Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP)," Nwokoro said.

Speaking from a judicial perspective, Nwokoro said "the International Guidelines developed by ICNIRP are based on a careful analysis of all scientific literature (both thermal and non-thermal effects) and offer protection against all identified hazards of RF energy with large safety margins".

All Nigerian GSM operators, he said, had adopted the ICNIRP guidelines as recommended by the GSM Association and the WHO.

Equipment deployed by the operators are sourced from reputable suppliers such as Motorola, Ericsson and Huawei who are members of the MMF, which also recommends the ICNIRP guidelines.

He further explained that being responsible organisations, the GSMA and the MMF were not unmindful of the social, commercial and legal consequences of neglecting the issue of public health and safety and therefore pay very close attention to the subject.

GSMA group had said that maintaining the highest standards of health and safety for GSM technology remained a global issue that the GSM Association was addressing as a priority in partnership with government, consumer and industry stakeholders. The GSM Association has initiated a programme to promote communications with national governments and WHO as guardians of public health; technical standard-setting bodies as assessors of scientific knowledge and the public as consumers of innovative mobile communications.

Through this dialogue, the GSM Association seeks to formulate responsible policy on key issues including the funding and prioritising of scientific research to help to address the residual uncertainties about mobile phone technology and human health.

According to Nwokoro, "without prejudice to the foregoing, the NCC has on various occasions pronounced that base station emissions do not pose a risk to human health." It has also gone ahead to conduct tests on emissions from operators' base stations and found same to be in compliance with the ICNIRP standards. Indeed, at a recent Telecommunications Consumer Parliament session, the NCC went as far as stating that if any such risks existed, the Commission would have taken steps toward arresting same since every Nigerian is also exposed to these emissions through consistent use of mobile phones and regular proximity to base stations. However, the NCC needs to formalise its pronouncements on the issue by adopting the ICNIRP standards in its Guidelines on Technical Specification for the Installation of Masts and Towers just like the United Kingdom has done with its Planning Policy Guidance Note 8 of 2001, Nwokoro added.

He advised that dissemination of informed knowledge was the most potent approach to arresting the apprehensions on base station emissions and that it behoves all stakeholders - the NCC, the GSM Association, equipment manufacturers, operators and health associations - to continue to freely and widely publicise the true position: that there are presently no scientifically corroborated research findings to confirm that base station emissions pose any real danger to human health.

The media, the IT expert pointed out, has a key role to play in this regard by reporting objectively on the subject.

Citing a court case under review instituted against Vodafone in the UK, Nwokoro said the court had an opportunity to determine the issue of the health implication of base station emissions. In the course of its determination, a number of very significant pronouncements were made which brought clarity into related issues which were hitherto unresolved. This consideration, therefore, informed the choice of the case for review, he said, adding that there was need to present an uncomplicated review of the major findings in the court judgement for the comprehension of the ordinary man on the street that is in need of education on the subject.

Speaking on the court findings, Nwokoro said the issue of whether base station radiations were harmful to humans was to be resolved by determining the appropriate base station radiation emission threshold. While Vodafone recommended the International Commission on Non Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) guidelines as the most widely accepted and therefore applicable, the objectors preferred the "Salzburg Resolution" of 2000 which prescribes a different standard.

Both Vodafone and the objectors agreed that base station radiofrequency fields are not strong enough to damage chemical bonds in the human body and are not cumulative over time. They are therefore referred to as 'non-ionizing radiation" quite distinct from "ionizing radiation" such as X-rays and gamma rays which accumulate and are dangerous to human chemical bonds.

Both parties also agreed that base station radiations are less intense than those from a basic domestic appliance like the microwave and therefore cannot heat up a human body like the former could.

Vodafone explained that energy absorption in body tissues is weighed as a Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) within a given tissue mass and is measured in watts per kilogramme (w/kg).

The Salzburg Resolution proposes thresholds much lower than the ICNIRP guidelines.

The court noted that since the conflicting standards are essentially derived from scientific research findings, the internationally accepted tests for authentication of such findings which are adopted by reputable guideline-setting bodies like the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) would be applied to determine the appropriate standard.

However, scientific studies performed to date suggest that exposure to low intensity non-thermal RF fields do not impair the health of humans or animals. To date, human health studies have the relationships between exposure to RF fields and different types of cancer, reproductive problems, congenital anomalies, epilepsy, headaches and suicide. Overall, these studies do not provide conclusive evidence of adverse health effects from RF exposures, says the report.

"Experimental studies on cells and animals do not suggest that mobile emissions below guidelines have damaging effects on the heart, on blood, on the human immune system or on reproduction and development, as predicted by people," the report further said.

The court, however, deduced as follows: a) Radiations levels from the micro wave, a domestic appliance, and X-ray machines are much more dangerous to human health than emissions from mobile phone base stations b) The ICNIRP employed the two tests of peer review and reproducibility in determining and recommending exposure guidelines.

c) The ICNIRP guidelines provide very adequate precautionary margins for the safety of the general public, including persons with peculiarly higher sensitivity.

d) The Salzburg Resolution has not passed the peer review test and has not been adopted anywhere in the world, including Austria which hosted the meeting where the proposal was developed.

f) Vodafone operated within the ICNIRP Guidelines and the company's base station emission levels are, in practice, "several hundreds, if not thousands, of times below that of the theoretical calculations".

g) A scientifically unsubstantiated, even if genuinely held, belief that base station radiations are harmful to human health cannot form the basis for ruling in favour of such belief.

Judgement was, therefore, given in favour of Vodafone.

Considering the UK Court judgement, Nwokoro said the judgement and pronouncements in the case were relevant in the Nigerian context for educating and guiding stakeholders such as residents associations, the legal community, public interest commentators and officials of the legislative and executive arms of government on the issue of the right standards that should apply in the regulation of base station emissions.

Meanwhile, the Association of Licensed Telecommunication Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) had in the recent past came full blast to caution Lagos State government over its planned action to regulate the erection of telecommunication masts in the state.

Annoyed by the utterances of the Lagos State Infrastructure Maintenance and Regulatory Agency (LASIMRA), that it would soon set up a technical committee that would advise government on the effects of telecom base stations, with a view to controlling telecom infrastructure in the state, ALTON says it would vehemently reject any attempt by LASIMRA to regulate telecom masts in the state.

Lagos State government had raised fears that radioactive emissions from telecom base stations constitute health hazards and that government may be constrained to grant permit for base station installation in areas where several already exist.

Chairman of ALTON, Gbenga Adebayo who strongly condemned the move by Lagos government, said the court in Nigeria ruled in favour of the association, when it went to court to seek redress concerning the matter. According to Adebayo, in the final judgement delivered by Justice Auta of the Federal High Court sitting in Lagos on February 25, 2007, the court held that telecommunications is a matter under the exclusive legislative list of the 1999 Constitution and accordingly "no state government or House of Assembly has the jurisdiction to legislate on it, and that any such legislation is null and void".

The court, he said, granted an order of perpetual injunction restraining the Lagos State, its Attorney General and the Inspector General of Police, whether by themselves or by their agents, from implementing the LASIMRA law against the plaintiffs namely ALTON, MTN, Multilinks, Starcomms, VGC Communications, Independent Telephone Networks (ITN), Teledom International Limited, among others.

Lagos had, in 2004, planned to regulate telecom masts in the state, and had gone further to sign into law the Act establishing the regulation of telecom masts in the state, a situation that prompted ALTON and all telecom operators, including Teledom Group, a broadband service provider, to challenge the powers of the state in regulating masts.

Telecom operators in Nigeria, according to ALTON, remained registered and responsible members of the global industry body, the GSM Association (GSMA), the International Telecoms Union (ITU) and the Coded Division Multiple Access (CDMA) group, adding that all Nigerian operators benefit from a huge body of research undertaken independently by different industry bodies in conjunction with international bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Union (EU).

Past and ongoing research and studies have been conducted by the GSM Association independently and in collaboration with WHO, as well as by several other international organisations, on possible effects on human health of proximity to telecommunication installations and equipment and use of mobile phones, ALTON said.

But it maintained that these studies and researches, till date, have failed to show any casual link between adverse health effects and telecommunication installations and equipment, and the use of mobile phones.

ALTON also wants Lagos to understand that telecommunication equipment and installations including base stations used by GSM operators are manufactured by members of the Global Telecommunications Equipment and Handset Manufacturers Association, the MMF who also comply with world standard guidelines.

ALTON further clarified that all deployed telecom equipment, installations, terminal equipment such as handsets and customer premise equipment sold by all Nigerian telecom operators in their varied bundled promotions are type-approved by the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), in compliance with the electromagnetic field (EMF) thresholds set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the ITU and other industry standards-setting bodies and, as such, do no pose any health threats.

The telecom industry regulator, the NCC, had in the past came up to support operators that the degree of radioactive emission from base stations was too infinitesimal to cause health hazards of any kind. Both the NCC and telecommunication operators had at different public fora in Lagos and Abuja sensitised Nigerians to remain calm over perceived fears that such emission could endanger their health in the far future.

Despite the argument of the NCC and the telecommunication operators, Lagos government insists that something urgent be done for save lives of over 20 million people living in Lagos. The government said it was jolted by the research information published in Nigerian dailies, concerning the imminent danger of life over radioactive emission from telecom base stations. The government made reference to a foreign publication in the UK, which said a mobile phone company had decided to remove a telecom mast from a block of flats after seven clusters of cancer and other serious illnesses were discovered.

Several studies, according to some Nigerians, have shown high incidence of cancer, brain haemorrhages and high blood pressure within a radius of 4,000 yards of sites where mobile phone masts are located.

To avoid too many installation of base stations, the Lagos government advised telecommunication operators to, as a matter of importance, consider collocation of infrastructure, where several operators could share infrastructure and use a single base station in a particular area, instead of each operator installing its own base stations and fast spreading radioactive emissions through multiple masts.

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