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Fire and cancer: Dangers of living under high voltage power cables

By Graham Kajilwa | Published Tue, November 22nd 2016 at 07:51, Updated November 25th 2016 at 15:38 GMT +3
Houses under Kenya Power lines in Eastlands, Nairobi. Kenya Power has advised residents of Mathare, Mukuru, Dandora, Kibera, Embakasi Village and Dam Estate to keep off the lines. [PHOTO: BONIFACE OKENDO/Standard]

Mary Murimi, 37, has lived in Mukuru slums for the last six years. Mukuru, she says, is not the best place to live in the city but as the rent is only Sh2,500 for a two-room iron sheet house, this is the best she can afford.

Ms Murimi feels safe living in the house despite the many fires that are witnessed in the area that she says “miraculously never touched her home”.

In fact, she never thinks much about the high voltage power cables hanging over her house. “I have never thought of them as dangerous,” she said with a smile yesterday. “In fact, we are more afraid that gas cylinders in our houses may cause fire compared to electricity on overhead transmission lines.”

But according to Kenya Power, Murimi and all those who live under high voltage power cables should be very afraid.

The company’s Regional Manager, Nairobi West, Phineas Marete termed this a “time bomb” and asked residents of Mathare, Dandora, Kibera, Embakasi Village and Dam to keep off the lines, which he said carry up to 66,000 volts.

In case of a fire outbreak, Marete cautioned, there would be no possibility of salvaging anything.

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“It is not that we are anticipating anything wrong, but if it happens, it would be the worst disaster of all times,” Mr Marete warned.

nine metres

He explained that it only requires 10 amps of power (which is six hundredth of the 66,000 volts) to cause death.

He said the cables suspended on concrete poles feed sub-stations that later redistribute the power at a lower voltage of 11,000. The power is then transmitted on wooden poles to transformers and to homes and business at 240 volts.

According to energy regulations, no buildings or trees are allowed nine metres on both sides of high voltage power lines. For the 11,000-volt power lines the permissible distance is three metres, while for 240 volts it is one metre.

“The 320,000 and 220,000 volt lines are usually suspended much higher in towers. The measures are in place due to the numerous maintenance exercises carried out by Kenya Power and for safety purposes of the residents,” she said.

Marete urged the residents to change their hardline stance and away from the high voltage lines for their own safety.

He accused politicians of having encouraged people invade lan reserved lands for overhead cables. “That is when the rains started beating us,” he said.

Illegal power connections in the slums, he added, had made matters worse.

In the slums, some of the concrete and wooden power poles are used to provide support to the residents’ makeshift houses.

“We have no problem with people planting maize under the power lines as they never grow beyond three metres. But the challenge is in case of an emergency, we cannot spare the maize or their structures as any hiccup on the lines means almost half of Nairobians have no power,” says Marete.

He added: “Some residents have even gone further to construct storey buildings along the lines, claiming that they were allocated the land by local authorities,” she said.

He said local politicians gang up with the residents whenever Kenya Power staff moves to demolish high risk houses.

This year alone, there have been three fires in Mukuru slum; in February, May and August.

In the February fire where a 10-year-old girl lost her life, the incident was blamed on illegal electricity connection. Some 160 iron sheet houses were razed down.

In the May fire, some 70 houses were also destroyed. Although the cause of the fire is yet to be established, it is suspected to be linked to electricity connection mishap.

magnetic fields

But it is not only fire that those who live by high voltage wires and sub stations should be worried about. Although there might not be direct impact, anyone living close to the cables could be prone to cancer due to emissions from the high magnetic fields, according to Dr Jamal Abade.

“Such an environment has a lot of carbon and this mixed with the air can lead to various strains of cancer. Prolonged exposure to such is therefore not advisable,” says Abade.