Ghana’s growing mobile phone industry – any health implications?

Mobile appIntroduction

Do mobile phones really cause cancer of any kind? Is their use in any way connected with the occurrence of diseases such as leukemia and impotence?

Ghana’s mobile phone industry is growing fast.  Records available from the National Communications Authority (NCA) show that mobile telephony in Ghana has exceeded 7,604,053 subscribers. And the number of mobile phone companies is growing. There are currently about six mobile phone operators licensed to do business in Ghana. Certainly, the growing number of providers will see an increase in subscription rates and accompanying increase in the number of sophisticated handsets that Ghanaians use.

Subsequently, there will be an increase in the number of base stations or transmitter towers that mobile phone companies need to be able to make subscribers make and receive phone calls.

But has the side effects of this growing and essential industry been taken into account and adequate policy made to handle them, should they occur?

Scientific evidence

Some scientists say that the technology used by the communications industry emits a type of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) that poses a health hazard to people. But local mobile phone companies, on the other hand, say, “it is only speculation.” In their view, there is no scientific fact to back the claim.

These days, mobile phones have become the most convenient mode of communication these days. And this technological advancement has turned the world into a globalised village, and Ghanaians are happily part of it. But at what costs?

For a mobile phone to send and receive calls, it must be within range of a transmitting tower. A mobile phone works just like a radio does: if you are too far from the station’s signal, your radio (or phone) cannot pick up the music (or receive a call). Radio stations, in order to transmit to a larger area erect transmission towers. Mobile phone companies also use transmission towers to relay messages to users at great distances.

The towers, and to a lesser extent, the hand sets, generate electromagnetic radiation (EMR). While most EMR is not considered to be dangerous to humans, scientific study shows that the EMR from mobile phone, radio and TV transmitter towers very likely is.

Prof. Kofi Oduro-Afriyie, a Physicist and Vice President of Central University College, Accra admits that no specific research has been done with regards to mobile phones in Ghana, but was quick to confirm that EMR is a known health hazard.

“Even though our human bodies need a certain level of radiation to survive, too much of it will cause genetic mutations, leukemia, cancer and impotence,” he said.

He explained that “electromagnetic radiation is all the more dangerous because these diseases take about 20 years before they show.”

Evidence of the danger comes from studies done in other countries. For example, the “EMFacts Information Service” a publication specialized on radiation issues in Australia, states that “although the exposure to the radiation from mobile phone towers is extremely low, the risk of cancer and other diseases is increased when the exposure is for long periods” such as for people living near these towers.

EMFacts also reports that a research team led by Dr B. Hockings found that children living within four kilometres of TV transmission towers in Sydney showed higher rates of childhood leukemia, the disease most often implicated with exposure to EMR. In fact “childhood leukemia in the exposed (closer) group was 60 per cent higher than in the control (further) group.”

In this study, the level of EMR was 1000 times lower than the Australian standard. Of great concern to researchers is that children seem to be more affected by EMR than are adults.

In other research, a 1990 study by Richard Hayes found that men who were exposed to micro and radio waves had a greater incidence of testicular cancer. A 1987 study by Dr W. Morton of the University of Oregon’s Health Science Centre, found excess cancer among people living close to radio and TV broadcast towers.

A Polish study found that soldiers exposed to EMR suffered from increased rates of leukemia and lymphoma. At the same time, Drs Henry Lai and Narendra Singh in Seattle, USA, found that exposing rats to ‘safe’ levels of radiation resulted in increased breaks in the DNA of their brain cells – and damage to DNA is associated with the initiation of cancer.

Expanding networks

Whatever the health risks and associated demands on Ghana’s health budget, the mobile telephony companies are here to make profit, and they won’t be the ones paying the hospital bills, so what do they have to lose?

Ghana’s trade liberalization policy, linked with a desire to strengthen the private sector, the zeal to open the country’s doors for Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) has opened the door to a proliferation of private phone, radio and TV companies.

These companies are employing aggressive and competitive marketing strategies, they have together won millions of Ghanaians. With the growing demand for more services, the number of transmission towers will multiply, and they are, on a daily basis. These expansions are being pursued without considering the possible health hazards associated with the EMR these towers pour into their surroundings.

And these days, it is not uncommon to see cell sites and transmission towers sited in densely populated areas, and these apart from the dangers of radiation do pose physical dangers to residents. A recent incident in Tema where a transmission tower collapsed over a building during rainstorms is an example.

In some instances, residents have gone to court to stop mobile phone companies from erecting transmission towers in their communities, citing possible side effects of radiation on their health as reasons.

Contrary evidence

The mobile phone companies appear unconcerned. For them profit is everything. To them the issues that are being raised by scientists are speculations with no real proof. And of course evidence exists elsewhere showing that some very influential mobile telephony companies have commissioned scientific researches of their own that have shown proof to the contrary – that there are no dangers to health from using mobile phones.

To achieve their lofty targets and maximize profits, the mobile phone providers are “extolling the benefits and denying the risks, in spite of mounting scientific evidence to the contrary. In the face of these challenges, what should be done in Ghana? What national safety standards should be set to regulate EMR emission levels?

Regulating the industry

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agency responsible for regulating the environmental activities of businesses, has not identified the mobile phone companies as having a significant impact on the environment. According to an EPA insider, mobile phone companies are required to register with the EPA but not to submit Environmental Impact Assessments before they commence business. And there have been instances where some of the companies have gone ahead to erect transmission towers without permission from the EPA and have been asked to pull these down after residents have drawn the attention of the EPA.

The Ghana Standards Board (GSB) has likewise not considered setting standards for mobile phones. A source stated that they respond to the immediate needs of the country and that when a need is identified, they are willing to work on it. If faced with the evidence, they will study it and set up a technical committee to come out with standards.

The National Communications Authority (NCA), seems to simply give licenses for mobile companies to operate. They even lack the necessary clout to get these companies to meet the requirements for their operations such as providing quality services for their subscribers.

Until recently, when the NCA showed that it has got teeth, it has always been seen as a toothless bulldog. It opened wide its mouth to bring some sanity into the industry by ordering two of the service providers to clean-up their acts. They also ordered the two companies to halt any further signing on of new subscribers until they improved their services.

But it is yet to be seen, whether they can really bite, because, there is strong suspicion among Ghanaians that the companies are still increasing their subscriber base even after the directive.

Benchmarks for radiation control

Ghana can take a cue from other countries of the world that already have permissible levels of radiation emission.

Countries, like the USA, Britain, New Zealand and Australia, have set national standards to prevent high levels of electromagnetic radiation and the resulting illnesses in their citizens.

The situation in Ghana, which has no EMR safety standards, is all the more disturbing because the mobile phone companies doing business here have not taken precautions to protect their customers.

For example, salesmen of some of these companies are themselves unaware of the safety issues of mobile phone usage. When asked about what they tell customers, they simply said, ‘we tell our customers not to use the phone often – because it is expensive.”

Another salesman said he advises his customers to get a leather jacket for their phones and to carry them somewhere other than a breast pocket to minimize the health dangers such as cancer.

However, one marketing manager ruled these out as safety measures, insisting that they only advise customers to get leather jackets to prevent scratches on the phone.

About 20 mobile phone users who were interviewed confirmed they have only been taught how to use the phones, nothing more. Nothing was mentioned to them by company employees about health dangers associated with mobile phone usage.

Lack of adequate information

The communications companies would like their customers to believe that there is no health controversy. Neither would they like the people who are living and working near their transmission towers to question the effects of the electromagnetic radiation these towers give off.

However, in other parts of the world, the controversy rages on and for us in Ghana, the emerging facts about the issues can be looked at carefully in our context.

Looking at our Ghanaian situation, where we have limited, if not zero resources to handle the ill effects of electromagnetic radiation, to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

It is our duty to inform our people, so they can make informed choices.

It was nine years ago when I first raised the flag, but no one seemed to have seen it.

Dr Bockings, the Australian Researcher, recommended then, that, “it would be prudent for some countries to set up perspective epidemiological cancer studies of possible effects of mobile phones -both base stations (transmission towers) and hand held units – so that in 10 years we have some answers.”

This advice was given in 1998. Tens years on, nothing concrete has happened.

I hope government would initiate moves with environmental groups and research institutions; with funding from the mobile phone, radio and TV companies, to conduct studies to establish the facts concerning the possible health hazards associated with communications technologies, so that at least, in Ghana, the tide of the cases of cancer, leukemia and impotence can be stemmed, to prolong the lives of our people.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

Email: [email protected]

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