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Hands-Free Kit Concerns Remain
November, 2000

Our latest tests confirm that hands-free kits can indeed increase the radiation from mobile phones. Following the tests in this controversial area, our conclusion and message to consumers remains: don't rely on a hands-free kit to reduce the amount of radiation emitted from a mobile phone.

Previous Which? tests
In April, Which? published the results of tests on a variety of mobile phone devices, including two hands-free kits. We reported that both kits emitted more radiation than a mobile phone alone. In both cases, these emissions were three times higher than those generated by the phone. These findings surprised us - we had assumed that the kits would cut emissions.

DTI tests
Our findings were reported worldwide. In response to UK concerns, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) commissioned its own tests on kits. Made public in August, these tests seemed to give contradictory results to ours. On the basis of this report, the government advised that hands-free kits did indeed reduce radiation exposure for users.

However, although both the Which? and DTI tests were measuring the strength of the electric field from the phones and hands-free kits at the head, the DTI was using a different type of test called a specific absorption rate (SAR) test. We think the way these tests are carried out on hands-free kits is flawed and means they can't pick up the effect our tests uncovered.

As the DTI published its report, we were midway through our latest round of testing. We wanted to see whether we would find the same results as in April if we used more phones and kits in different combinations.

The Latest Which? Tests

Topline results
Mobile phones emit low-level radiowave radiation - also known as radiofrequency (RF) radiation. We found that all the hands-free kits in our latest tests could lower the level of these RF emissions. However, just as in April, we found that they could also increase RF emissions, this time by anything from 50 per cent to 250 per cent - an increase of up to three-and-a-half times.

The critical factor
ERA Technology Ltd, the independent lab we used for our tests, took thousands of measurements to explore what was causing the changes in RF emissions. It found that one critical factor was the distance between the top of the phone's aerial and the ear (distance 'd'). And in many of the positions that are likely when a kit and phone are worn in normal use, the probe inside our test head detected higher emissions from the kits than when the phones alone were held against the head.

SAR test limitations
We also carried out some SAR testing at the same laboratory used by the DTI. We found no positions where the kits gave higher readings than the phones. But we also found that the shape of the SAR test rig made it impossible to get the hands-free kit wire into the position that gave the highest readings in ERA's tests. We moved the hands-free kit wire as much as possible, and found that movement did vary the SAR reading.

There is another important difference between ERA's tests and SAR tests. ERA measured the radiation from the kits and phones at the same place - inside the head at ear level. With SAR tests, the probe moves around inside the test head and the equipment picks out the area where the reading is highest. With the kits, this was again at the ear. But with the phones, it was at the jaw and cheek. So, unlike our ERA tests, SAR tests don't automatically give a reading for radiation emissions from phones at the ear.

We think the standard that SAR tests phones have to go through should be extended to include this so that kits and phones can be compared properly. We also think more research is needed to investigate whether there are differences in the effects of RF radiation emitted at the ear (close to the brain) and at the cheek and jaw.

How we carried out our specially-designed tests
We tested five mobile phones and ten hands-free kits - two were suitable for each phone. Our tests were devised to reflect the position in which people normally use a phone with a hands-free kit - earpiece in the ear and the phone worn or held at about waist level.

We used a probe inside a dummy head to measure radiofrequency radiation emissions. First we measured the emissions with just the phone handset next to the ear. Then we measured them with the hands-free kit earpiece in the ear and the phone at about waist level. From this position, the scientists moved the phone up and down so that they varied the distance between the tip of the phone's aerial and the earpiece (distance 'd'). They took readings for thousands of different positions.

We found that this distance 'd' determines how much RF radiation the earpiece emits. The maximum emissions occurred when 'd' was between 40cm and 47cm, and again between 58cm and 75cm, depending on the kit being tested. Between 47cm and 58cm the emissions fell again so that they were lower than the levels from the phones. In the positions where the kits were giving higher readings, they were between 46 per cent and 259 per cent higher than the readings from the phones. In the positions where they were cutting emissions, the scale of the change was less marked - anything from 8 per cent to 97 per cent.

Exploring SAR tests
We also carried out some specific absorption rate (SAR) tests which use a moving probe to measure the radiation absorbed in a liquid-filled dummy head. We wanted to explore why this type of test has so far only shown hands-free kits cutting radiation levels not increasing them.

We have found two possible explanations for this. First, the design of the SAR test rig doesn't replicate how someone would normally use a hands-free kit. Most importantly, the wire couldn't hang down straight - as it did when we took the highest readings in our other tests. Second, we found that the SAR test system looks for the point in the head where there is the highest level of radiation - and gives a final reading for only this area. But we found that kits and phones emit the highest levels of radiation in different places: kits emit most at the ear; phones emit most at the user's jaw and cheek.

The health question
The real issue that concerns people is whether mobile phone radiation will damage their health. Currently there's little evidence that it causes health problems, but neither has research given it the all clear. In a report in May, the Department of Health Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones concluded that exposure to RF radiation within government guideline levels doesn't cause adverse health effects. And all the readings we took in our tests - whether from hands-free kits or from phones - were within these guideline levels. But the group added that there may be other effects at or below these levels which warrant further research.

Despite these partial reassurances, radiation levels remain a concern to the users of the 34 million mobile phones in the UK. Hands-free kits were originally thought to reduce radiation - but our tests show that, while they can cut levels, they can also increase them. This depends on the phone, the kit, your height and where you position the phone. Unfortunately, there's no way that an individual can work out the best position for them to minimise the effect.

We want the government to take our findings into account and devise a new standard for testing hands-free kits. But remember: if you're concerned, the most important safety-first advice is to keep the number and duration of calls to a minimum, whether you use a phone with or without a hands-free kit.

ERA Technology
Our tests were carried out by ERA Technology Ltd, an international consulting company. ERA has a broad range of specialist knowledge in electrical, electronic and radiofrequency technology built up over 80 years. It also has extensive expertise in electromagnetic compatibility.

Phone Hands-free kits
Ericsson T18s Ericsson Portable hands-free
Orange kit mains libre*
Nokia 3210 Nokia headset for 3210
Hama headset for 3210*
Nokia 5110 Nokia Headset HDCGP 51/61/71
Telcom Personal Hands-free earpiece*
Panasonic GD50 Panasonic EB EMD 70 for GD50
Cellular Access for Panasonic GD50*
Philips Savvy/C12 BT Cellnet (O2) hands-free accessory kit for Philips Savvy
Telcom Personal hands free earpiece
* These kits are not available in the UK, but were tested for comparison with European Consumer organisation tests

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