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Mobile Phone Risks: New Research Must Be Free Of Interference
It is 20 months since the official inquiry report into the safety of mobile phones was published. The inquiry team, chaired by Sir William Stewart, found no evidence of a health risk from using mobile phones. But its members could not say they were absolutely safe. They conceded there could be subtle, unknown biological effects with potential long-term consequences linked to mobile phone use. The findings underlined the case for more research.
The government agreed, and yesterday it announced the detail of a (pounds) 7.4m programme aimed at providing the answers. There are some 40,000,000 mobile phones in circulation in Britain (population some 55,000,000). The uptake suggests that the potential health risk is of limited concern to users. But it should be a concern, particularly, perhaps, in the case of children whose developing physiology possibly puts them more at a risk from using mobile phones. Yet they seem to have been targeted as a growth area by the industry.
It might be many years before the full potential health impact is known and, if it exists, it could affect many people. If the newly-commissioned research can produce verifiable evidence of a health risk in a shorter timescale there could be obvious benefits. The researchers will concentrate on the biological effects of radiation from phones and masts and the risk of brain cancer or leukaemia. But is it really necessary to devote time, effort, and resources to studying the impact of mobile phone use on driver performance? There is surely enough evidence from accidents where it has been at least a contributory factor to show that it is a foolish practice. Drivers can already be prosecuted in connection with using a mobile phone at the wheel, highlighting the danger in so doing.
Because it was unable to reach firm conclusions, the Stewart report could advise only caution and restraint. The experts will be in a position to give clear, unambiguous guidance only when they have the evidence to base it on. That will depend on scientifically-robust research coming up with the answers. How confident can we be of that happening, when roughly half of the funding is coming from the mobile phone industry? The industry has an obvious vested interest in the research.
The controversy over regulating the siting of mobile phone masts demonstrated that the industry is not afraid to intervene in its own interests. It argued that the planning and height restrictions being introduced in Scotland would damage the economy because it would take much longer to roll out the network. That process will probably be slowed down, but that is surely an acceptable consequence of allaying public concerns about masts suddenly appearing in communities without their input (far less consent), and about the possible health risk from these masts. The new regulations, rightly, give communities a say and the new research should eventually help them make an informed decision, if properly conducted. If the new research is not truly independent it will be damaged and the public will not heed it. The public need to be assured that safeguards are in place that prevent industry interference at any stage in the research programme. Otherwise, doubt and uncertainty will remain.