Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The myth, reality of mobile phone radiation

The confusion trailing Nigerians on the use of mobile phone in Nigeria have continued to shift from the rise of ‘killer numbers’ to radiation, reports CHARLES OKOH.

The astronomical rise in the use of mobile phone devices between year 2000 and now has come with a lot of challenges. These challenges come in various forms. One of such is the issue of the health implication of the devices. Initially, there were wide spread stories of how people died while using the phone.

However, the present concern in the nation is the safety of base stations erected within the communities where people live. This worry gave rise to a forum tagged Mobile Phones, Base Stations and Health Concerns, put together by IT World International magazine.

In his address, the Executive Vice Chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Dr. Ernest Ndukwe said the impressive attendance at the forum suggests the importance attached to the issue at hand.

He also said NCC prides itself as being committed to the safety and general well-being of phones users wherever they may be within the country and that the Nigerian Communications Act provided copiously for the well-being and safety of consumers. Noting that its an interesting paradox how issues of rapid development in the sector could evolve with new challenges; prominent amongst them are the base stations, which form the bedrock of wireless services provision in the country.

“If by year 2000 there were less than 500,000 connected lines in the country and today the networks are recording a combined total figure of connections in the country of 68 million, it then follows that operators have also deployed facilities to support this unprecedented increase,” he said.

According to him, starting from the fact that not too long ago, there were no telephones and now there are so many phones and people are beginning to worry about health, and complaint that base stations pose more dangers than the mobile phones.

He noted that there are about 15,000 base stations in the country and that the fear basically arise from electromagnetic field or radiation generated by these base stations.

“The truth is that the number of base stations we have in the country today still falls far below what is required to have good and comprehensive or total radio coverage of Nigeria. Electromagnetic energy consists of waste of electric and magnetic energy radiating through space and traveling at very high speed. The area where these waves are found is called electromagnetic field (EMF).

“The main source of electromagnetic energy which is visible to all of us is the sun. But man-made sources account for large amount of electromagnetic radiation. Some of these sources include fluorescent tubes, microwave ovens, television sets, computers, laptops. The radiation emitted from a base station is far small than that of a television antenna,” he revealed.

Ndukwe said the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports revealed that EMF level from base stations range from 0.002 per cent to two per cent of the levels of international exposure guidelines depending on a variety of factors, such as proximity to the antenna and the surrounding environment, which is low to that of radio or television broadcast transmitters.

Most reviews, he said, have concluded there is no evidence that wireless phones have any adverse effect and radiation in wireless phones may produce biological effect even as more research is needed.

On the difference between biological effect and adverse effect due to electromagnetic exposure, he said, biological effects are effectible changes that occur in an organism, tissue or cell, and they could become prone to the organism, and also advantageous like radiation used in treating some cancers. While adverse effect is when the organism is unable to compensate for such biological effect.

He, therefore, advised that people should beware and avoid putting the phones all the time in the ear, talk less and if there is no need to use it, should avoid it, warning that people have started taking advantage of the clamour to make all kinds of unsubstantiated claims that they have gadget and device that could prevent the effect of radiation, saying the claims are false and they do not have any effect and do not add any value.

The base stations, he said, must be near enough for there to be good communication and on regulating the quality of phones that come into the country, Ndukwe noted NCC, has the power to regulate the quality but not monitoring the borders to determine what comes into the country.

Contributing, Dr. Abbas Abdus-Salam of the Department of Radiotherapy, University of Ibadan, said most Nigerians have no access to wired lines, so most calls have to be placed via mobile phone, which may increase the risk of the overall exposure to mobile phone radiation to average Nigerian phone users compared to their counterparts in other places where they could make their calls on land lines.

“Again most Nigerians carry in their persons several handsets. This may also create an additional risk of exposure. People who don’t carry multiple phones carry phones with multiple SIM. This is an area we have to address looking to the issue of interconnectivity, networking problem and the issue of number portability, so that one can switch to another provider if he or she is not satisfied with service of a provider,” he said.

Dr. Abdus-Salam decried that the nation is now a dumping ground for used phones and a grey market for substandard phones with potentially poor regulatory compliance, stressing that the way some of them name their phone to sound close to the standard ones means that they might be cutting corners.

“These are areas where I think the situation in Nigeria might be peculiar. I think the Nigerian academia need to do our own local research within the peculiarities of our country. I think it is scientific imperialism for us to continue to think that once Europe approves it, then it must be good for us. I do not think it is that straight forward. It is true that once it is approved by these regulatory agencies, the work we have to do might be less.”

He also called for caution saying that even though there are no conclusive evidence yet, subscribers should be careful of the quality of handsets they use as well as restrict the time used making calls, while advocating abolition of free midnight calls, and landline usage should be resuscitated.

He also warned against using mobile phones when driving as this will kill faster, while use of hands-free as much as possible, should be encouraged.

For the regulator, he said antennas should be erected to make radiation surfaces face outside of the living areas especially in the case where the antennas are erected on top of the roof rather than the mast.

“The academia is weakened by a lot of things. Most researches conducted in our universities are self-funded. I have to take out of my salary to fund my research and the reason I do that is so that I can be promoted. If there is no issue of promotion tied to research, there is no publication or research in this country,” he decried.

“When Nigerian universities are ranked around 7,500 in the world, people begin to question it, but how can you compare yourself as a lecturer to a man who has a budget of millions of dollars per annum minimum to conduct research and the salary is not even one over 100 of that and yet you are expected take out of that to conduct your research,” he lamented.

Equally speaking, chairman, Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, said base stations are required to transmit and receive radio signals from mobile phones and other wireless devices, without them it would be impossible to make or receive calls and maintain the call as people move around.

“The system of mobile communications sustains our calls by handing us (our mobile phones) over from the current base station to the next one in the vicinity. If there is no base station in a vicinity, subscribers cannot be connected, and that underscores the need to have these installations near us in order for us to be connected with mobile phone services,” he said.

On its safety, Adebayo said the emissions from base stations and other household appliances as well as those from cellular phones fall under the category of non-ionizing radiation which are safe for humans.

The ALTON boss pointed out that much of the apprehension is caused by either lack of information or outright misinformation in some quarters.

Other speakers such as William Saad, Managing director, HIS, who was represented by Gbenga Onakomaiya, and Thomas Barmueller, Director for Europe, EMEA, Mobile were all of the opinion that there are no known conclusive scientific evidence at present to indicate that radiation from mobile phones and telecommunication masts could cause such dangerous diseases as cancer among humans.

Earlier in his address, the convener of the forum and chief executive officer of ITWorld International Magazine, Mr. Enyi Moses, said the decision to organize the public forum follows increasing public interest in mobile phones, base stations and radiation.

He said while available scientific evidence does not show that any health problems are associated with the radio waves from mobile communications, some people still express their worries.

These worries, he said, have been addressed by World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“As with many new technologies, concerns have arised about the effects on health from using a mobile telephone. So far, the World Health Organisation Task Force on EMF (Electromagnetic field) effects on health has no definitive conclusion on the veracity of these allegations,” he said.

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