Debunking myths associated with mobile base stations

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The proliferation of mobile telephony around the world and the ubiquity of a technology that a decade and a half ago had not gained traction has undoubtedly made communication that much easier.

It’s the miracle of mobile telephony that has made communication possible at dizzying speeds, brought people closer and confirmed that indeed, the world is now but a village.

On these shores, mobile telephony has also revolutionalised money transfer, helping accelerate economic and social development. But every new development brings along new challenges.

The rapid increase in the use of the mobile telephony – there are more than seven billion active mobile devices around the world and over 32 million mobile phone subscriptions in Kenya alone – has necessitated the deployment of thousands of base transmitting station (BTS) sites countrywide. Some of these BTS sites are located close to the residential areas to boost connectivity and communication.

Even though the residents desire clear connectivity, they have also become increasingly concerned about the potential harmful effects that Electro-Magnetic Frequency (EMF) might pose to their health. As a result of this, misunderstandings and misinformation about the issues of safety and EMF radiation in general, have been created.

The other challenge posed by the Base Transceiver Station (BTS) location is the issue of visual intrusion.

Currently, there are a number of telecommunication companies, which may all want to have their own BTS sites.

However, from a policy perspective, it remains prudent for such companies to explore the possibility of co-location.
This will not only help in minimizing visual intrusion but also promote the efficient use of the available space. These are some of the contemporary environmental management aspects that the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources is currently grappling with.

On the one end, we are enhancing our regulatory capacity in conjunction with the relevant agencies such as the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) and the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK) to handle the cross cutting matters.

As part of this agenda, we have also beefed up our partnership efforts with various stakeholders, as we seek to raise awareness and debunk myths on issues surrounding EMF and its health effects if any.

It is important to unravel the myths around the health effects of the base stations and at the same time, promote a better understanding of what is known and what is not known about EMF.

So far, global independent research efforts by experts in this field have not found any health hazards arising from mobile devices and masts to warrant a health hazard. The World Health Organisation’s updated factsheet, “Electromagnetic fields and public health”, published in October 2014, which is based on an in-depth review of thousands of scientific studies, concludes that “to date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.”

However, as a precautionary move, we must continue to urge all players to apply and strictly uphold regulatory guidelines in their operations. The CAK and NEMA have been collaborating to ensure that all BTS sites are subjected to strict Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) assessments. In addition, after one year of operation, mandatory Environmental Audits will also need to be periodically undertaken.

To foster industry partnerships, the Ministry of Environment recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with mobile network operator Safaricom that outlines key deliverables with regard to safety on EMF and public awareness.

Such initiatives are commendable and indeed necessary, and will remain a key priority as we seek to address contemporary environment issues in a stakeholder participatory model. This, I believe will help promote compliance to the law and enhance harmony in the industry.

Partnerships with resident associations under the ambit of the Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations (KARA) will also come in handy to increase the understanding of EMF issues among our residents and other stakeholders.

This will not only help our residents and other stakeholders not to live in fear and ignorance but to also make informed decisions on EMF, whenever called upon.

This is an abridged version of a speech recently delivered by Environment and Natural Resources Cabinet Secretary Prof Judi Wakhungu at a Kenya Alliance of Residents Association (KARA) forum on the environmental effects of EMF

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