The Health Risks of Mobile Phones - An African Perspective

06/02/2015 02:28 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016
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A few months ago the Nigerian government published a press release refuting statements alleging that the use of mobile phones can cause cancer. The statements in question were made by Ngozi Ogunjiofor, a deputy director in the Nigerian Ministry of Communication Technology.

While representing the Minister for Communication Technology at an inauguration event, Ogunjiofor publicly stated that, "Radiation from phones can cause problems, and this is why we are advising the public not to bring phones close to their body or use in the rain." She added, "The most dangerous and important element in the communications sector is mobile phones, because of the health and other related risks they bring."

But in a counter statement, Omobola Johnson, the Minister for Communication Technology, insists that, "There are no proven health hazards resulting from the use of mobile phones, or proximity to telecommunications installations for now that could pose a risk to human health." Such is the controversy surrounding the issue of health risks from the use of mobile phones in Nigeria.

Mobile phones and health risk

This controversy is nothing new to the Western world. Even though in the World Health Organization and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields associated with wireless phone use as possibly carcinogenic to humans based on an increased risk for brain cancer, the U.S. National Cancer Institute posits that research studies have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck. Yet many Americans would rather err on this side of caution.

A country of mobile phones

Nigeria is definitely one place where the issue of mobile phone health risk should be treated with caution. Our country has a population that is less than 180 million, but there are currently approximately 184 million connected mobile phone lines. Essentially, there are more mobile phones in Nigeria than there are people!

But the quality of telephone services in Nigeria is dismally poor. About 40 percent of rural areas in the country are yet to be covered with telephone services, in spite of the numerous expansion projects of the global system for mobile communications (GSM), and code division multiple access (CDMA) operators.

Service providers in Nigeria have identified bad roads, poor public electricity supply, local taxes and occasional sabotage as challenges to performance. Yet they continue to roll out new lines which further choke the phone service. But being very practical people, Nigerians have devised a way, though expensive, to ease the problem. Everyone who can afford it has a minimum of two mobile phones, each from a different operator. Some have as many as four. They use whichever is operational at any given time or place. This creates a very different exposure profile to countries where one person/one phone is the norm.

The preponderance of mobile phones in Nigeria has stimulated local researchers to raise the issue of health risks. While some are primarily concerned about cancer from the use of phones, others are also worried about the risks of other non-thermal effects that may be result from exposure to radiation from base stations. Potential non-thermal effects listed in a paper by Santini and colleagues include headache, stress, earaches, "Hot Ear," chronic fatigue, insomnia, weakened immune system, blurred vision, dizziness, lack of concentration, memory loss, nausea, sinus infections, muscle pains, drastic mood changes, behavioral disabilities, and reduced sex drive.

But the Nigerian Minister for Communication Technology continues to stress that, until results of definitive and conclusive research are obtained with unequivocal evidence of cell phone health risks during use, Nigerians can safely continue using their mobile phones. The agency's position is based on the fact that, to date, research conducted by international organizations on the safety of mobile phones use remain inconclusive, and studies provide no indication that environmental exposure to radio frequency fields, such as from base stations, increases the risk of cancer or any other disease.

Precaution

Yet many Nigerian scientists would rather be safe than sorry. Researchers like Okonigene and Yesufu have advised against mounting GSM masts within 300 meters of schools, residential buildings, youth centers, and other places where children are found, to avoid a situation of endangered health and well-being. Like Devra Davis, they also recommended limiting the number and length of calls, and the use of "hands-free" devices to keep the mobile phones away from the head and body.

In the face of fears and concerns about the health risks posed by the use of mobile phones, while awaiting the results of scientific research into this issue, it might be best that governmental regulators allow aculture of precaution to hold sway. The same is true for members of the public -- at least to the extent to which they can bear the inconvenience of acquiring and attaching protective devices to their person that reduce exposure to electromagnetic fields. The rise in the popularity of phones that support multiple sim cards may also reflect an application of the precautionary principle in Nigeria.

At the end of the day, how mobile phones are used depends on where they are used -- and because of this, the possibility exists that the potential risks in a country like Nigeria are not the same as in the United Sates.

Post script: Are you wondering what would happen to the 184 million mobile phones currently in use in Nigeria when they stop working or need to be replaced? I'll be doing a piece on electronic waste management in West Africa soon. Please stay tuned. 

This piece was originally published by the University of Michigan Risk Science Center