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Mobile Phone Safety Leaves Experts Divided
The Consumers' Association yesterday accused the government of having used the wrong tests to assess the safety of hands-free kits for mobile phones, saying the association stood by its claim that the devices failed to protect users against radiation.
A government report on Monday sowed confusion among mobile users by endorsing hands-free kits, saying they reduced exposure to radiation from handsets.
This contradicted a Which? report in April, which found that hands-free kits increased the amount of radiation heading for the brain.
Yesterday it became clear that the real dispute between Which? and the government was over how the radiation from hands-free kits should be measured. The conflicting findings were from different tests. Which? measured how much radiation was transmitted by the devices; the government's scientists measured how much radiation was received by the brain. This explains the different conclusion.
Which? found that the radiation emitted by hands-free kits was, in some cases, three times that emitted by the radio transmitters in the handsets themselves. But the government found that, however much radiation the hands-free wires channelled, the amount reaching the brain was much less than if the mobile user had a handset clamped to their ear.
Which? said yesterday that it was studying the tests used by the government, and would announce its findings in two months. "We think there are problems with current testing for hands-free kits, and we are carrying out more research ," said Helen Parker, editor of Which?
"We stand by our results published earlier this year. Consumers need to be aware that hands-free kits are no guarantee of lowering radio emissions from mobile phones, and in some cases, they actually increase it."
The government used what are known as SAR (specific absorption rate) tests - a measure of the energy absorbed in living tissue, which determines, in this case, how much the brain heats up. Scientists use a model of a head filled with simulated brain liquids to assess how much energy gets inside the human head.
A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry, which commissioned the latest tests, said SAR tests were the "rational and scientific way to proceed. Measuring emissions will not tell you about absorption in the head, which is the key health risk here".
In the past, the Australian Consumers' Association has recommended the use of hands-free kits.
The spat between Which? and the DTI tells the public nothing about the underlying, unresolved issue of mobile phone use, which is whether the radiation is dangerous.
This was addressed last month by the Stewart inquiry, which failed to find a conclusive answer: there was no evidence that mobile phones damaged health, and no evidence that they did not. Mindful of the slow-burning but eventually devastating BSE crisis, the committee called for further research, and urged mobile users, particularly children, to be cautious.