Concerns about the safety of telecommunications infrastructure are as old as the technology itself. Though not always supported by evidence, conspiracy theories abound regarding perceived dangers, including cancer, impotence among men, and more recently COVID-19.
The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) last week assembled a panel of high profile experts to address the prevailing safety and environmental issues around telecommunication developments and services in Uganda.
The webinar on the “Safety and Environmental Concerns around Telecommunication Installations in Uganda” also sought to convey factual information from all the major actors and stakeholders in the global telecommunication ecosystem, and to mitigate concerns.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), World Health Organisation (WHO), GSMA, International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), among others, were represented.
Mr Arnold Waiswa Ayazika, the Director Environmental Monitoring and Compliance at NEMA, told participants that communities in Uganda have continuously raised concerns about possible radiation from telecommunication infrastructure as well as noise and vibration from generators that are used at the base stations during electricity outages.
Communities have also complained of interference with the aesthetics of the surroundings, fear of a possible collapse of the telecommunication installations and devaluation of properties as many tenants tend to avoid areas close to such infrastructure, Mr Waiswa further noted.
The NEMA official recommended sharing of masts by the telecommunication companies and innovation such as the new way of erecting masts that makes them blend well with the surrounding environment. He also called for continued awareness creation and engagement of communities to explain their concerns.
Mr Waiswa’s remarks echoed those of Ms Helen Nakiguli, the UCC Senior Officer Environment Management, who had earlier pointed out that the Commission receives on average three letters every month, seeking guidance or clarity on the safety of installations in proximity to human settlements.
In mitigation, Ms Nakiguli said, the webinar aims” to ensure that the public gets the right information, and also to understand what is being done to address their concerns.”
Indeed communication was emphasised by several panellists and participants, including Makerere University’s Dr Hanifa Nabuuma who noted that while the science looks solid and scientists concur, the politics often interfere, taking advantage of an information gap. On his part, NEMA’s Waiswa said the public should not just be consulted but also educated and have their concerns taken into account.
Effective communication, panellists agreed, would minimise conspiracy theories such as when it was widely claimed that 5G technology was somehow responsible for the outbreak and spreading of COVID-19.
Back in April 2020, after reports linking 5G to COVID-19 went viral, UCC issued a statement underlining the fact that COVID-19 is caused by a virus that spreads through person-to-person contact and not through radio waves as suggested by conspiracy theorists.
The Commission, which regulates telecommunications, also cited the Guidelines of the leading global authority on non-ionising radiation – the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).
At last week’s webinar, Mr Rodney Croft, the Chairman ICNIRP, underlined these Guidelines which aim to limit exposure to electromagnetic fields (100 kHz-300 GHz). He emphasised that as long as exposure from 5G devices complies with these Guidelines, no harm should arise.
ICNIRP is an independent Non-Governmental Organisation, which works in collaboration with World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) to develop and disseminate science-based advice on limiting exposure to non-ionising radiation, including radiofrequency fields relevant to 5G technology.
“If by certainty it means ‘scientific certainty’, then it is appropriate to say that we are certain that 5G exposure will not cause harm,”
Mr Croft told the webinar
On possible dangers associated with towers, the participating experts were unanimous that exposure from towers is relatively low and therefore nothing to worry about. Being nearer does not increase exposure either, they concurred. The panellists also poured cold water on concerns that Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields (RF-EMF) cause diseases such as cancer, saying there is no evidence to that effect.
Nevertheless, Dr Emilie van Deventer of the WHO Radiation Programme said the WHO International EMF Project, which she described as “a multinational, multidisciplinary effort to create and disseminate information on human health risk from EMF“, had been set up to investigate health effects of telecommunication installations.
On 5G, she argued that while the use of the millimetre wave (mm-Wave) is not new, 5G networks are likely to bring greater exposure to the public [and workers], calling for further research into possible effects of absorbing mm-Wave energy on the skin and eye.
ITU’s Dr Fryderyk Lewicki added that the 5G system has many advantages but causes additional problems in RF-EMF exposure assessment. At the same time, Dr Jack Rowley, the Senior Director Research and Sustainability at GSMA, assured regulators and operators of his organisation’s guidance to ensure and communicate Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) compliance for mobile networks.
The engaging webinar was moderated by Dr Edwin Mugume of Makerere University and attended by more than two hundred enthusiastic participants.