GSM Telephony and Associated Hazards: Nigeria Says No To Precautionary Principle

by Tayo Akeem Yusuf

1.0 Background
There is considerable growth in the use of mobile phones in recent years, leading to increasing demand for land to site telecommunication base stations and associated infrastructures. Currently, there are about 65 million subscribers for mobile telephony in Nigeria. The growth of GSM has not only brought economic growth to Nigeria, but has also made available cheaper and affordable telecommunication services to Nigerians.

The world has a record of seemingly benign technologies and technological products, as scientific certainty concerning their adverse effect took a long time to be established. GSM telephony is obviously one of such technological products. This rightly throws the responsibility for invoking precautionary principle on identified significant hazards related to GSM, even as the scientific community is yet to provide a conclusive proof linking GSM to health effects.

2.0 GSM Hazards
The GSM base stations and associated infrastructures constitute potential hazards to scenic beauty and public health.

2.1 Amenity and Visual Impact Consideration
Indiscriminate siting of base stations in conservation and scenic areas is detrimental to environmental quality and visual amenity. The commonly used GSM mast/tower, which is an assemblage of steel, wreaks havoc on the skyline and aesthetic value.

Globacom Nigeria limited is committed to decreasing environmental and cosmetic impact associated with GSM base stations. The camouflaged mast (palm tree mast) on the left of the picture above is a GSM mast owned by the company (Globacom). However, the mast on the right is the popular choice of other GSM telecommunication companies in Nigeria.

2.2 Occupational and Public Health Consideration
There is currently considerable confusion over the health and safety issues relating to non-ionizing radiation emitted by GSM telephony base stations and handsets. There is obviously conflicting information from the various scientific sources and environmental groups with respect to health hazards associated with GSM telephony.

The link between radiation emitted by GSM base stations/ cellular phones and health effects in human (such as cancer, headache, fatigue, sleep disturbance, dizziness, lost of mental attention. etc) remains the subject of continuing debate.

The World Health Organization (WHO), basing its judgment on the lack of conclusive proof among the scientific and medical communities, stated that there is no scientific certainty concerning health effects relating to GSM base stations.

The World health body, however, recommended the invocation of precautionary principle in this respect. According to WHO, the precautionary principle is a “risk management policy applied in circumstances with a high degree of scientific uncertainty, reflecting the need to take action for a potentially serious risk without awaiting the results of scientific research.”

3.0 Precautionary Principle
The precautionary principle is the first line of defense in environmental health and safety management. It predicates that when potential impacts on public health and the environment are both significant and scientifically uncertain, it is necessary to take precautionary measures irrespective of availability of scientific evidence concerning such impacts.

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992, says: “…. Where there is significant or serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. This declaration also extends to public health and safety issues.

It may take many years for the scientific community to become aware of the possible link between a technological product and environmental health safety concern. A conclusive proof may yet take several years, by which time very serious damage may have been done. Hence, the need for at least precautionary principle in such circumstances.

As an example, the European Union (EU) successfully used a precautionary limit to control the commonly used pesticide (atrazine) often found in drinking water. The limit set for atrazine then appeared to be very stringent and unnecessary, especially as there was no scientific certainty then linking atrazine to health effects. However, the EU precautionary limit has been amply justified by the recent study which clearly established atrazine as a hazardous chemical. The study also revealed that the EU precautionary limit was too high (i.e. not stringent enough to control the hazardous effect of the chemical). The EU precautionary approach, though not effective enough with the benefit of hind sight, undoubtedly reduced the ecological impact attributable to this hazardous chemical.

In the same vein, practical precautionary approaches have been and still being used in respect of GSM telephony. Those relating to cell phone include:
-Use of hands- free to decrease the radiation to the head
-Keeping the cell phone/ handset away from the body
-Not making/ receiving calls in a car without an external antenna.

The main area of worry has been emission of non-ionizing radiation from GSM base stations. National and international safety standards have become stricter over time, even as the world awaits scientific certainty concerning the associated health effects.

The International Commission on Non –Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) is an association of world renowned scientists. The body provides information and advice on the potential hazards of exposure to non-ionizing radiation. The ICNIRP guidelines for 900 and 1800 MHz, which the GSM networks use to deliver services to Nigerian subscribers, are given below:
900MHz: 21.48 W/m 2 for occupational exposure; 4.51 W/m2 for public exposure;
1800MHz: Maximum power density of 42.97 and 9.02 W/m2 for occupational and public exposure, respectively.
Exposures above the values given for the ICNIRP limits are considered hazardous to human health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) Fact Sheet No. 193 (Revised June 2000) recommended the ICNIRP guidelines as safety standards in respect of RF emissions from GSM base stations. In fact WHO said “The International Guidelines developed by ICNIRP are based on 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……”

The ICNIRP guidelines have been adopted so far by more than 80 countries. Interestingly, some nations, expressing concerns over protection of the public’s long- term health; have adopted more stringent emission standards than the ICNIRP precautionary limits.

3.1 Nigeria Says No to Precautionary Principle
Worrisomely, the key actors in the Nigerian telecommunication sector (such as Nigerian Communications Commission NNC), Senate committee on telecommunication and Association of Licensed Telecommunication Operators (ALTON) have been dishing out half-truths to Nigeria concerning health effects associated with GSM telephony. The Nigerian telecommunication regulatory body hides under the scientific uncertainty concerning potential health effects of GSM to play down the precautionary approach accepted world wide. At present, Nigeria has no form of legislative and institutional arrangement for safeguarding its populace against the effects of non-ionizing radiation emitted from GSM base stations.

The GSM operation began in Nigeria in 200

1. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) process became mandatory for GSM base stations and associated infrastructures just in 2009. The first EIA report on GSM telephony prepared by a newly licenced GSM service provider (ETISALAT) rightly adopts the ICNIRP guidelines for non-ionizing radiation in respect of its base stations. But there is no legal basis to carry out any regulatory compliance in this regard at present in Nigeria.

4.0 Conclusion
The GSM telephony has satisfied the need of Nigerians for effective and efficient telecommunication system. Notwithstanding, the telecommunication regulator should comply with the worldwide popular support for precautionary approach in respect of GSM potential hazards, so as to ensure the public’s long-term environmental health safety and sustainable development.

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Felix A June 21, 2010 - 12:46 pm

Yes, being a practioner in this field, I quite agree with you on these concerns. Management and enforcement of relevant policies however largely depend on the Regulators’ areas of priorities/interest.

Be that as it may, I’d like to inform all concerned that the first EIA Report on GSM operations in Nigeria was not by Etisalat but by MTNN between 2003-2004, followed by Vmobile in 2005. Accordingly, Federal Ministry of Environment (FME) issued them certificates of compliance. EIA is however a continuos process as long as developmental project is concerned.

Please note that the first Etisalat EIA exercise was done in 2009.

NASIRU MUKHTAR April 23, 2010 - 11:07 pm

That is a good one!

ADENOLA MAYOWA TINUOLA March 4, 2010 - 8:58 am

Your article is time and a demontration of how concerned you are about us(Nigerians). I’m an under graduate student of urban and regional planning. I’m working on ‘an analysis of the location of GSM masts and the effects on land uses’. I hope your writings will shed more light on the study.

kylie December 10, 2009 - 5:54 am

Nice article, i agree with you.It should be environmental friendly

Abraham Oluseye October 27, 2009 - 11:39 am

I’m a GIS (Geographic Information System) analyst. I’m currently using the GIS technology tools to analyse the effect of the base stations and towers on the surounding premesis(in Ikeja LGA, Lagos). My findings for now indicates that Nigerians dont seem to mind any consequences as long as it will happen in future dates. Even siting of base stations in there bed/sitting rooms, as long as they will get peanuts. My findings also, indicates that there is no plan for evacuating the mast after outliving their useful lifespan. However, I will appreciate any past of future writtings or materials on this topic. My belief is that our people need to be sensetize on this issue

Idris Adeyemi June 21, 2009 - 4:59 pm

I agree with you. Nigeria should not hide under scientific uncertainty concerning GSM health effects to play down the precautionary principle.


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