How safe is having powerlines on your property?

For the sake of good health, avoid living or working under electricity service lines. PHOTOS/PROMISE TWINAMUKYE

What you need to know:

Experts say it is prudent to live as far away from the power lines as possible. They especially stress the need to stay clear of areas close to cables carrying high currents (thousands of amps), or close to large transformers in high voltage electrical switchyards.

Electricity is one of the greatest inventions of our time. But just like any invention, while it solves some problems it creates others. For electricity, the problem lies in the electro magnets it gives off. In the earliest days of home electrification, electricity was often carried from place to place by bare copper wires with minimal cotton insulation. The commonest material for electrical wiring are copper and aluminum. These are not the best conductors however, they are abundant and cost less. Gold is also used in applications because it is corrosion resistant. Every wire used to transmit power creates a magnetic field while current flows through it.  The waves from power lines and electrical devices have a much lower frequency than other types of EMR, such as microwaves, radio waves or gamma rays. However, a low frequency wave does not necessarily mean that it is of low energy and is not hazardous to humans living or working under it.

Apart from the obvious hazard of possible fatal electric shock from direct contact with conductors, research has been carried out to ascertain whether the magnetic fields can cause cancer or could assist the development of a cancerous condition. Other effects investigated include miscarriages, Alzheimer’s disease and depression

Although there has been no conclusive evidence of the effects of power lines on human life, experts advise that when buying a new house, proximity to power lines might be one of many things considered.

They say it is prudent to live as far away from the power lines as possible. They especially stress the need to stay clear of areas close to cables carrying high currents (thousands of amps), or close to large transformers in high voltage electrical switchyards. Often times, we have seen people electrocuted in compounds and others hanging on service cables. Most of these are our children and house maids. For the sake of good health, avoid living or working under electricity service lines.

Types of service cables

There are different types of service cables and each has varying health hazards. The 220KV and 132KV are regarded as high voltage cables. These serve regional power station and mostly come from dams or production centres. These are under Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited (UEGCL) and Uganda Electricity Distribution Company Limited (UEDCL). They are regarded as high voltage and very dangerous. Living under them is illegal and harmful. Because of their higher magnetic fields, they are erected on metallic towers above 200 meters.

The 66KV, 33KV and 11KV are regarded as medium voltage, coming from sub-stations and are operated by Umeme. These are also dangerous to human life. Living or working under them is harmful to your health and should be avoided at all costs. The 0.415KV are regarded as low voltage and less harmful. These are the service cables that transmit power to homesteads commonly referred to as ‘Solidos’. 

Umeme buys Right of Way

According to Hamid Kiggundu, a technician with Umeme, for high voltage lines to pass through any land, Umeme must have got a right of way. In most cases, such land is owned by the state. But in cases where the land is private, Umeme negotiates with the owners and due compensation is done before such cables are given the right of way. For medium service cables, Kiggundu asserts that they normally pass through road reserves from stations to sub-stations. In cases where they inevitably pass through peoples’ land, Umeme compensates them and advises them to relocate.  In both high and medium voltage lines, none is permitted to live or do any activity, be it farming under them. He says this is why Umeme staff normally cuts down plants and tree planted in way of service lines.

In case any person wants to carry out any activity under low voltages lines,  Kiggundu says Umeme requires them to get a Minimum Safety Clearance from umeme before any activity is done. Apart from minimum safety clearance, if the service cable being applied for by a customer is going to pass through other peoples’ land, the neighbours must give the applicant a way leave clearance.

The ‘Way Leave Form’ is a requirement, without which, no connection can be forced through peoples land by Umeme. In doing this, Umeme knows the negative health and economic impact that come with service cables. The very reason why they want neighbours to consent to their passage in people’s land.

Health impact of magnetic fields

Magnetic field or electric field, in simple terms, is the magnitude of the electric force at any given point in space. Although it may not directly cause electrocution, magnetic fields cause long term health hazards to people. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH/ these health issues may range from various types of cancer, brain damage, neurodegenerative disorders that include; Alzheimer’s disease and other memory disorders such as Ataxia, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Motor neuron disease, multiple system atrophy and Progressive supranuclear palsy among others.

This is why it is dangerous to live or work under service cables. And it is the reason Umeme staff or professional electricians wear helmets to minimise exposure to magnetism. Muhammad Mayanja, an electrician with Uganda Clays Kajjansi, explains that even air acts as a conductor of electromagnetism, cautioning that being near active service cables is risky and harmful.   

Safety precautions  

Mayanja, advises people not to buy or settle on any land that has electricity cables lines. It is unwise, in his view, to buy land that already has service cables passing through. In the same vein, he guides that for any reason, if Umeme illegally passes service cables through someone’s land without their consent or due compensation, such a person is at liberty to seek redress from courts of law.

For home connections, Mayanja advises that due diligence should be taken to make sure that all safety precautions are followed to the letter. Applicants for electricity connection should first ensure that the wiring of the house was done professionally. This includes ensuring a proper earthing system of the house.  They must also secure a minimum safety clearance from Umeme before the connection is done. Some people recklessly dodge proper inspection of Umeme staff before connection is done. Mayanja says this is setting yourself in harm’s way.

Just like Mayanja, Kiggundu also advises people using electricity to ensure that poles that hold the service cables have the recommended height of more than 41 feet from the ground. The idea here is that the taller the pole is, the less the magnetic field it will generate.  From his expertise, Mayanja says most residential houses are normally about 14 feet long. So if the pole is 41 feet, it minimises the conduction of magnetism between the iron roof of the house and the cables.

The 11KV and 0.415KV service cables for home connections (locally referred to as ‘Solidos’) come insulated. But because thieves sometimes steal them, people tend to remove the insulation to avert theft. This is dangerous and Kiggundu discourages people doing so because it increases magnetism in the surrounding space of the naked cable. In instances where people are using overhead cables on their roofs, Mayanja says there is need to ensure that the cables do not rub against the roof because this is likely to peel off the insulation on the cables, causing short circuits. 

Avoid stealing power

Because of the higher cost of power, many Umeme clients steal power by inserting wires in the fuse of the main switch. For safety reasons, Kiggundu advises people to refrain from this dangerous vice because it results in most of the short circuits in homes. He recommends that for any problems concerning connections and short circuits, clients should seek professional help and avoid fixing problems on their own. 

Umeme should sensitise people

Hassan Ssebadduka, an engineer and a resident of Kamwokya, tasks Umeme or UEDCL to always sensitise people about safe usage of electricity and power saving techniques. He notes that many consumers are unaware of the health dangers caused by electromagnetism, because the effects are gradual. He thinks if there is regular sensitisation, people will be more careful about exposing themselves to magnetic fields. This way, he thinks that both financial and health problems come with electricity distribution will be minimised. He likens Umeme to traffic police that awaits to arrest offenders on roads instead sensitising them on proper usage and connections. Electricity drives almost all we do in life. It makes working and living simple but is detrimental to human life. Use it with care and live or work under service cables at your peril.