Radiation from telecom masts and our health
Accra, July 6, GNA – A few years back a huge global scare about the cancerous effects of radio frequency radiations (RFR) from mobile handsets gained capital in the Ghanaian media.
Warnings were that mobile handsets should not be held close to the ear because the radiations could cause brain tumour, mobile handsets should not be put in the breast pocket because the radiations could affect the heart and mobile handsets should not be put in the side pocket because radiations could cause infertility in both men and women.
But much later, it became clearer that the scare was a hoax, or at least had no scientific basis.
Lately, attention has shifted to the hazardous effects of radiation of telecom towers on human health.
Currently, there is a huge debate, within the public domain, in Parliament, and in the media in Ghana about the dangers of RFR from telecom towers to human health.
Along with that come complaints about noise, vibrations and fumes from standby power generators at telecom base stations; telecom towers interfering with aircrafts approaching landing, and towers falling on people and property.
These concerns stem from the recent proliferation of telecom masts across country, particular in residential areas, resulting from the licensing of six multinational mobile phone network operators – MTN, TIGO, Vodafone, Kasapa, Zain and Glomobile - in a relatively small country like Ghana.
Much as telecommunication is desirable for national development, it seems Ghanaians are not ready to coexist with telecom infrastructure, without which the required quality mobile network service cannot be possible.
Currently there are 3,000 plus telecom towers serving over 13 million mobile phone subscribers and experts say the number of towers is woefully inadequate to assure quality service.
Talking about coexistence, the National Communications Authority (NCA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have proposed co-location of telecom towers as a licensing requirement for operators.
The government has, indeed, asked the regulators to get tough on operators to voluntarily co-locate; some operators had actually initiated moves towards co-location long before the government's directive, but some have also warned that co-location could pose challenges such as signals interference and operators deliberately sabotaging each other.
Public concern about the health impact of RFR from telecom towers, vis-a-vis the need for quality telecom service and possible challenges of co-location, presents a rather complex puzzle for anyone to deal with.
This article looks at just one aspect of the puzzle, health concerns about radiations from telecom towers, drawing on scientific research-based conclusions by the World Health Organisation (WHO), The Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), and by an independent Ghanaian scientist, Professor Emmanuel Amamoo-Okyere.
Several WHO research and reviews have concluded that there is no clear evidence of detrimental health effects in humans exposed to RFR from telecom towers.
There are at least 25,000 expert articles on the WHO website (http://www.who.int/peh-emf/research/database/en/) related to RFR and human health and, significantly, none of them supports the scare about RFR from telecom base stations.
For instance, during a WHO International Workshop on Base Stations and Wireless Networks: Exposure and Health Concerns, in June 2005 in Geneva, there were a number of conclusions: that “overall, there is no evidence of deleterious biological effects that could be associated with health hazards” – and that “exposure to base stations does not cause health effects.” The simple reason given was that the exposure levels are very low - typically 10,000 times lower than what could be harmful to humans.
The WHO review paid attention to the effects of telecom masts radiations on sleep, blood flow, cognitive functions and general well-being.
The conclusions were that there may be alterations to sleep and blood flow caused by exposure, but the data are still inconsistent.
Moreover, there is no known effect on health attributable to these “low-amplitude” alterations of sleep and blood flow (Hubber et al. 2002, 2003, 2005 & Loughran 2005).
No clear effects on cognitive functions (memory comparison, visual selective attention, and dual tasking) were identified but analysis of the data from a Dutch study in 2003, showed some minor effects of Universal Mobile Telecommunications Systems (UMTS) signals on general well-being (no effects from GSM signals).
“This report concluded that UMTS signals had an adverse effect on well-being,” (Zwamborn et al., 2003).
Simply put, the UMTS signals are related to third generation (3G, 3.5G) mobile technology. The public should probably be concerned about the emergence of 3G and 3.5G technology.
Indeed, the WHO itself has called for precaution in mounting telecom masts, even though their health impact has not yet been established. One of such precautions would be co-location and a move to fibre optics technology that replaces dependence on satellite and rule's out telecom masts.
Another report published on the internet by the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) (www.mja.com.au) could be one of the sources of controversy around the health hazards of RFR.
It was based on a study that sought to determine whether there was an increased cancer incidence and mortality in populations exposed to RFR from television towers (not telecom towers) in nine Australian municipalities, three of which surround the television towers and six of which are further away from the towers.
The study results showed that Leukaemia incidence and mortality in children were significantly increased in municipalities closer to TV towers, but incidence and mortality in the outer area remained stable.
It therefore concluded that “there is an association between increased childhood leukaemia incidence and mortality and proximity to television towers.
“No increase in brain cancer incidence or mortality was found, but there was an increased leukaemia incidence and mortality in the municipalities close to the towers.”
It is important to note that this study was specifically related to television towers and not to telecom base stations, and according to experts who spoke with this writer, television towers in a country like Australia, generate high level RFR because they broadcast to a huge geographical area. That cannot be applied to a relatively small country like Ghana, much less to telecom towers.
Another study in the United Kingdom indicated that there is a decline in incidence of adult leukaemia with distance, but concluded that "the results give, at most, no more than weak support for an association between residence near television transmitters and leukaemia risk".
There are no known studies in Ghana yet, but one outspoken Ghanaian scientist, Professor Emmanuel Amamoo-Otchere, has made pronouncements to the effect that the telecom mast radiation scare in Ghana is due to gross misconception.
He has said that radio wave intensity decreases rapidly as it travels away from the antenna on the tower; in free space, it decreases to a quarter when the distance is doubled; in reality, it reduces much more quickly due to loss of the signal strength that is caused by having to pass through obstacles such as trees and buildings.
The Professor noted that radiations from telecom towers were non-ionizing and did not disrupt the molecular structure of biological material.
Besides that, the globally recognized, independent International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has released guidelines that provide levels of RFR exposure that are regarded as safe for humans.
The ICNIRP guidelines are based on 50 years of studies. According to Prof. Amamoo-Otchere, no confirmed study, to date, had shown adverse health effects at exposure levels below ICNIRP, and emissions in Ghana were well within the ICNIRP levels.
An expert panel review of scientific literature over the past 10 years has consistently concluded that there is no credible or convincing evidence that RFR from mobile phones or base stations operating within ICNIRP exposure limits causes any adverse human health effects.
All established health effects of RF exposure at the frequencies used for mobile communications relate to heating. But according to Prof. Amamoo-Otchere, the level of heating that will occur from exposure to radio waves within the exposure guidelines is extremely low, and the body's normal thermoregulatory processes effectively dissipate any heat away that might be generated.
Obviously, there is no need for a health scare about the proliferation of telecom masts, save the concerns about the noise, vibrations, fumes, interference with aircrafts and damage to property.
The health scare is simply out of a misconception due to lack of education.
While heeding the precautionary measures suggested by the WHO, the operators and regulators should collaborate with the people's representatives, members of parliament, the media and other stakeholders, to deal with the misconceptions at the community level more decisively.
The operators in particular must go beyond employing agents to find venues for the erection of masts, and directly engage citizens, with the view to allaying public fears any time and every time a mast is to be erected.
May I conclude by quoting Prof. Amamoo-Otchere who says: “As a phone user moves while talking, the network passes the call from one base station to another; this process is called a handover; a good service requires a high density of handing over network of base stations.”
Quality service is therefore not possible unless the public are comfortable coexisting with telecom masts.
A GNA Feature by Samuel Dowuona