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Mobile Phone Safety Chaos
This Is London
Journalist: Jo Revill
May 11, 2000

Parents are today left in total confusion over whether to let their children use mobile phones.

The independent group of experts investigating the risk says it is possible children may suffer harmful health effects due to minute biological changes occurring in the electrical circuits of the brain.

However, they decline to give parents any guidance on how long each day a child can safely spend on the phone, whether it should be a hands-free set or traditional mobile, the type of phone or even the age of the child.

The experts say that the younger the child, the more cautious parents should be and that, generally, all "non-essential calls" should be discouraged.

But the chairman of the group, Sir William Stuart, the Government's chief scientific adviser, has admitted that when his grandchildren reach the ages of seven and five he will not allow them "unfettered use" of a phone.

At a packed press conference in London, Sir William said: "The balance of evidence is that if there are going to be problems, children are likely to be the most susceptible to them.

"At present, there is no evidence of problems but there is evidence of minute biological changes to the electrical currents (in the brain). One has to be sensible about this. It is for parents to make up their own minds on the issue."

However, the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones called for firms to stop targeting children and teenagers to increase their market share. Some companies offer children free calls after 6pm to boost sales.

The group's overall conclusion is that there is nothing at present to suggest emissions from mobile phones are harming people. But it is known that radio-frequency radiation can produce subtle biological changes. As yet, no one knows whether this will produce adverse health effects.

The group recommends a rolling research programme to look at all the science, and another review in three years to assess the risks. It also calls for:

Schools to be given the right to protest against the base station masts being sited on their grounds or buildings.

Drivers to be made aware of the dangers of talking on a mobile phone while driving because it slows down reaction time.

Further testing of hands-free kits because it is not clear whether they are more or less dangerous than normal mobiles.

A leaflet to go to every household explaining the situation.

A website which will tell customers what the specific energy absorption rate (SAR) is for their particular phone.

At present, there are around 25million subscribers in the UK, which means around 40 per cent of the population is covered, with nearly half having a prepaid phone.

The turnover of the industry was estimated at 5.8 billion last year with Vodafone having the greatest turnover.

Charles Reiss writes: The Government has delivered a swift response to the report - but appears hesitant over how far to go in pushing the mobile phone industry to cut back on marketing its products to children and warning all concerned of the health risks.

A lengthy announcement from Public Health Minister Yvette Cooper promises fresh guidance to schools and local education authorities on the use of mobiles by children. It says an explanation of radiation measurements should be printed on each mobile phone box, as a menu option on the phone screen, and as a label on the machine itself.

Ms Cooper also says the Government is "minded" to compel full planning permission for all new telecommunication masts but warns that there will need to be "wide consultation" before any action is taken.

It is clear ministers are squeezed between the wish to play safe on cautioning about possible dangers and the risks that over-heavy warnings and controls could do needless damage to a thriving market.

Ms Cooper stresses "the urgent need for further research into the potential health effects" of mobiles and says the Government is commissioning a comprehensive programme with the aim of establishing a more solid verdict over the next few years.

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