In September 2013, Court of Appeal judges caused a stir when they refused to use their Elgon House offices in Nairobi for fear of radiation. They said that the communication masts near the posh Upper Hill offices emitted cancer-causing rays.
To the layman the juducial officers came out as fussy. The Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK), now Communications Authority of Kenya, which owns the masts, downplayed the judges’ fears saying that tests carried out showed that the radiation levels on all telecommunication masts in the country were within acceptable limits.
In the same year some motorists complained of health complications. It was later established that the vehicles had been contaminated by radiation after the March 2011 earthquake that affected some nuclear power stations in Japan.
The two incidents served two purposes; first, to give much needed publicity to the dangers of publicity, and secondly to draw the Kenya Radiation Protection Board (RPB), the organisation mandated to regulate any sector that emits ionising radiation, from the shadows.
It has since then stamped its authority and today every vehicle that is imported into the country has to have its radiation inspection clearance certificate.
Ionising radiation consists of particles, X-rays, or gamma rays with sufficient energy to charge the constituent particles of the medium through which it passes. It can affect the chemistry of the body if caution is not observed.
The alpha, gamma and beta rays, which are produced by radioactive materials (usually industrial wastes or by-products), are more damaging.
Ionising radiation has more health risks compared to non-ionising radiation which is emitted by gadgets such as refrigerators, personal computers, mobile handsets and telecommunication masts, said Arthur Koteng, an expert at the RPB.
Dr Koteng, the RPB assistant chief, said that the maximum permissible dose for a radiation worker should be nothing more than 20 millisievert (mSv) per year.
He said that an mSv can be defined as a high dose of radiation within a short period of time.
Members of the public and those not working in conditions that expose them to radiation can, in any possible circumstance, at most get one mSv per year.
Most people are exposed to radiation in health facilities during X-rays, MRIs, among other technological scanning tests.
“Cancer patients under radiotherapy are affected highly but that is justified because it is only directed at the affected area to kill the cancer cells – every clinical imaging procedures must be justified,” said Dr Koteng.
“The dose cancer patients receive while undergoing treatment is considered to be justified. The benefit they get from radiation treatment by far outweigh the risk,” he said.
Cancer patients under radiotherapy may experience pain, increased heart, blood pressure and respiratory rates. Clinical advice must be sought to maintain the levels.
Kenya adheres to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) standards, where all member states learn from one another, but solely benchmark on the United Nations standards.
Dr Koteng said that there is special equipment (Geiger counter) donated by the IAEA that is used for measurement of radiation doses.
When one is exposed to radiation, the immediate clinical symptoms that should be checked include; reddening of the skin and hair loss (as in the typical case of cancer patients).
“Adverse effects can occur if someone receives a high dose (more than 20 mSv) of radiation within a short period of time. Examples of this occur to patients undergoing cancer treatment,” said Dr Koteng.
Excessive exposure to radiation can cause cancers, acute burns, neurological effects and death.
Health workers who handle imaging machines like X-rays must be fitted with the Geiger counter, which is read monthly to detect the mSv levels.
The RPB licenses all radiation facilities in the country to ensure safety of workers, members of the public and the environment is taken care of to minimise emissions. This is in the areas of medicine, industry, research and teaching.
Kenya has about 3,000 X-ray machines, which have all been licensed, said Dr Koteng. A Sh4,000 licensing fee is paid annually per every machine.
Most of these are in facilities spread across large urban centres like Nairobi and Mombasa. Other towns also have their share.
Dr Koteng said that non-compliance can occur when a facility is operating without a licence.
“Either because one has installed or began using it without informing the Board or for non-renewal of licence,” he said.
In the latter case, a facility can be closed down to allow the owner to comply with the licensing provisions, failure to which they can be prosecuted. “This year we have taken about 10 cases of non-compliance to court.”
Dr Koteng said the MP Shah hospital was among facilities that were ever in court for non-compliance but has now conformed.
“We have teeth and we can bite,” said the RPB chairman, Erastus Gatebe.
Prof Gatebe said the country has only 26 Radiation Protection Officers (RPOs) who conduct inspections. It takes about Sh6 million to train one RPO up to the masters’ degree level, he said.
The entry point for an RPO is a BSc degree in science or engineering. Also considered is an MSc in nuclear science, radiation protection or nuclear engineering, which takes about two years depending on the country where the course is undertaken.
The University of Nairobi under the Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology, conducts a two-year MSc Nuclear Science course. Other training courses are only available abroad in countries such as South Korea and the US.
“We currently have three officers in South Korea. Two are undergoing an MSc training in nuclear engineering and one on nuclear safety and security,” said Prof Gatebe.
“Several are trained continuously through IAEA training programmes.”
The Board is currently revising the 30 year-old CAP 243 of the Constitution to include matters to deal with nuclear security and safeguards, and even non-ionising radiations, said Dr Koteng.
He added that they aim to ensure safety, and have prepared draft regulations and guidelines which need to be gazetted and formalised for them to be operational.
It is not clear under which body the non-ionising radiation falls because under the law the RPB is only mandated to handle ionising radiations.
With enhanced sensitisation and enforcement mechanisms, the industry is now more compliant than it was three decades ago, he said.
Dr Koteng emphasised that the RPB was independent in its decision making to avoid regulator and licensee conflict – since they fall under the same Ministry of Health (where it is domiciled).
“We avoid conflict of interest as this may cause some challenges in enforcement of the law,” he said.
The RPB has offices in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, Mwingi and at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
A major challenge is that radiation cannot be seen, touched or tasted and it is therefore very difficult for a member of public to detect and complain to the Board.
Radiation detection is done through dedicated instruments like the Geiger Muller counters and other types of specialised meters.
In July, the IAEA, which is domiciled in the United Nations, sent an Integrated Regulatory Review (IIRS) mission to Kenya. The IAEA serves as the global focal point for nuclear cooperation.
It also assists its member states, in the context of social and economic goals, in planning, using nuclear science and technology for various peaceful purposes, including the generation of electricity.
The IAEA facilitates the transfer of such technology and knowledge in a sustainable manner to developing member states, like Kenya.
The IRRS Mission team leader Javeir Zarzuela, said they also verify, through its inspection system, that states comply with their commitments, under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other non-proliferation agreements, to use nuclear material and facilities only for peaceful purposes.
“Kenya has demonstrated its commitment to improve the national legal and regulatory framework for radiation safety,” said Dr Zarzuela.
“Steps to ensure the RPB’s effective independence and complete regulatory framework for radiation safety would help it achieve this objective.”
Dr Zarzuela is also the sub-director of operational radiation protection at Spain’s Nuclear Safety Council. He was speaking at the Kenyatta National Hospital during a media briefing on the Mission’s report.
The 12-member IRRS team to Kenya comprised experts from France, Hungary, India, Ireland, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe as well as three IEAEA staff members.
The director of radiation, transport and waste safety in the IAEA Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, Peter Johnston, said the IRRS mission would lead to a strengthened regulations for radiation safety.
“I am confident that its recommendations and suggestions, when implemented, will contribute to a significant strengthening of the country’ regulatory framework for radiation safety,” said Dr Johnston.
The IRRS team carried out review in the following areas: responsibilities and functions of the government; the global safety regime; responsibilities and functions of the regulatory body.
Other reviews were made on the management system of the regulatory body; the activities of the regulatory body including the authorisation, review and assessment, inspection and enforcement processes; development and content of regulations and guides; emergency preparedness and response.
Occupational radiation protection, control of medical exposure, public and environmental exposure control and transport of radioactive material, were also reviewed by the IRRS visiting team.
During the mission the IRRS review team performed a systematic review conducting interviews with management and staff from RPB and direct observation of working practices during conduct of a regulatory inspection.
“The Board will need to study the peer review mission report when ready, look at identified gaps and address them to enhance effectiveness of our obligation to the Kenyan public,” said Dr Koteng.
This article was first published by Business Daily