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No Evidence Of Risk Doesn't Mean Phones Are Safe
The official inquiry into the health risks of mobile phones published last May found no evidence of any detrimental effects on users' health apart from a demonstrably greater risk of car accidents for anybody driving while having a telephone conversation.
However, the working party chaired by Sir William Stewart, a former government chief scientist, argued in favour of the "precautionary principle" and said mobile phone users should be made aware of the limitations of scientific research and make up their own minds about what action, if any, to take.
The panel's advice has now prompted ministers - with the lessons of the BSE crisis still fresh in their minds - to issue warnings to consumers planning to buy mobile phones in the run-up to Christmas.
The 12 independent experts on the committee, including Sir William, did not give cellphones the all-clear because even though no study to date has shown an unequivocal health risk, the absence of clear evidence means there could still be a risk to users. "We all know what happened about BSE," Sir William said on the publication of his report, mindful of the view in the early 1990s that there was no evidence that "mad cow" disease threatened human health.
But Sir William's report did recommend that the mobile phone industry should refrain from promoting the use of cellphones to children on the basis that if there was a risk, then children are likely to be in the greatest danger.
"If there are currently unrecognised adverse health effects from the use of mobile phones, children may be more vulnerable. In line with the precautionary approach, widespread use by children for non-essential calls should be discouraged," Sir William said.
Sir William added that he was against giving children "unfettered access" to cellphones: "The younger the child, the more care should be taken in allowing them to use mobile phones," he said.
Children are more likely to be at risk because their brains are still developing, their skulls are thinner and their heads are smaller, which means they receive a proportionately large dose of microwave radiation.
Most of the research carried out on mobile phones has involved exposing cells or tissues to high levels of radiation. So far, the results have been unclear about whether the phones pose a health risk.
Alan Preece, a researcher at Bristol University, has conducted the only research so far to be carried out on human volunteers, who underwent a range of psychological tests while using a mock device that simulated the radiation emissions of a mobile phone.
Mr Preece failed to find any effects on memory, despite reports to the contrary published by some newspapers. He did, however, discover that people's reaction times tended to improve while on the phone.
This concerned him because radiation from mobiles may be having some effect on the brain, possibly by a local heating effect, which may be improving blood supply to one side of the user's head. Another investigation by Which?, the consumer magazine, found that use of hands-free devices - which are often sold on the promise that they can lessen radiation exposure to the head - can actually increase radiation doses by up to three times as the earpiece acts as an aerial that channels microwaves to the brain.
But the research on which these findings were based has been disputed by other scientists, especially those working for the Federation of the Electronics Industry, which criticised the methodology of the Which? researchers.
After the Stewart inquiry, the Government is committed to spending millions of pounds on more research, which may eventually find more satisfactory answers on the health risks.
Until then, perhaps the best advice is not to use them while driving: there is evidence that to do so increases the risk of accidents fourfold, even if a hands-free device is used.