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Mobile Friends Or Foe?
New Straits Times
Journalist: Anita Anandarajah
December 17, 2001

Sir William Stewart, chairman of the world's largest investigation into mobile phone safety, the Stewart Inquiry, will not allow any of his grandchildren to use mobile phones.

He has slammed mobile phone companies for targeting schoolchildren with "back-to-school" promotions, which entice the latter to buy new phones before the start of the new term.

"I support the rise in price of mobile phones and also the increase in the price of phone calls to get children to reduce the number of calls they make," said Stewart.

A study by Swedish scientists has shown that mobile phone users are more prone to develop tumours on the side of the head where the mobile phone is held. Additionally, it was also discovered that older (analogue) mobile phones caused more headaches than newer (digital) mobile phones.

"Children are a more susceptible group because their skulls are thinner and their nervous system not fully developed; therefore any effect on the brain may be greater if indeed there were dangerous levels of radiation emitted from mobile phones," he added.

Statistics from a study conducted in Bristol, England, show that 72 per cent of adults own a mobile phone, and an astounding 80 per cent of children between 11 and 15 years use a mobile phone. Of the latter, 10 per cent spend more than 45 minutes a day on the phone.

The symptoms of prolonged use include frequent headaches, fatigue, dizziness, concentration difficulties and memory loss.

The 1999 Stewart Inquiry commissioned by the British Government revealed that 50-60 per cent of energy emitted from the mobile phone is absorbed by the user's head. The exact level depends on the design of the phone and how far away it is from the base station mast. The weaker the base station signal, the more the mobile phone will have to "power up" to maintain contact with the network.

Michael Rugg, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, pointed out that there are indirect effects of mobile phone use.

"Phone users impair their driving efficiency and safety due to lack of concentration, or distraction, more than anything else. Accidents are four times more likely to occur. It may even be more cost effective to ban the use of mobile phones! There is no evidence to suggest that the effect differs for hand-held versus hands-free operation," he said.

The effects also extend to general well-being in the form of anxiety caused by the fear of mobile phone technology as in the case of residents who live in close proximity to a base station. Statistics show that 90 per cent of radiation comes from the base station, and the remaining 10 per cent from microwaves and mobile phones.

A question was raised during the debate: Would moving the antenna to the bottom of the mobile phone reduce the radiation? Regardless of where the aerial is placed, about 50-60 per cent of the radiation goes to the head.

Are young people being exploited by the mobile phone industry?

"At the end of the day, it is a question of informed personal choice.

Make informed decisions given the necessary facts. Gather information about known effects as well as possible effects. Consumers should challenge the industry to keep the public informed," said John Fellows of Links (an initiative aiming to widen access to education within Glasgow), based at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Rugg said: "More often than not, it is the parents who purchase the phone for the child. It all boils down to parental responsibility. There is access to up-to-date information on the Internet and mobile phone retailers. Take the trouble to do some research."

The Stewart Inquiry recommended that both the government and the mobile phone industry conduct more research on mobile phones as effects of radiation can take years to manifest themselves.

Hazardous or helpful? Friend or foe? Curse or companion? You decide.

Listen up!

Among the actions the Stewart Inquiry recommended are:

1. Children should use phones only for essential calls.

2. Planning regulations for mobile phone masts and base stations which transmit and receive signals around Britain should be tighter.

3. Leaflets should be delivered to every home, explaining the technology and the potential risks particularly those of using mobile phones, even hands-free, while driving.

Last June, a group of 45 fifth and sixth year pupils from Scotland schools met in the University of Glasgow to debate the use of mobile phones. Below is a list of suggestions they came up with:

1. Text-only phones for young people, and the cost of text messaging should be further reduced.

2. "Shields that do not absorb radiation" should be fitted onto mobile phones.

3. Packaging should display clear information about the risks.

4. A minimum age of 14 years for mobile phone use.

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