January 12th, 2005
Expert Spells It Out: Health Fears Mean Young Should Not Use Mobile Phones
By David Adam
Children should not use mobile phones because of continuing concerns over the possible health risks, a leading expert warned yesterday. Sir William Stewart of the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) urged parents not to give the phones to children under the age of eight, and said those between eight and 14 should use them only when absolutely necessary.
“I don’t think we can put our hands on our hearts and say mobile phones are totally safe,” Prof Stewart said.
Scientists have yet to find proof that the electromagnetic radiation emitted by mobile phones and their transmitter masts could be dangerous, but Prof Stewart said new evidence suggested there might be possible health implications.
He said there was enough uncertainty about mobile phones to adopt a “precautionary approach”, particularly when it comes to children. If electromagnetic radiation poses a risk it will affect children more than adults because their skulls are thinner and their brains are still developing.
“If you have a teenager and you feel they can benefit in terms of security by having a mobile phone, it is a personal choice, it is a personal decision, although mobile phones have not always helped on that basis,” Prof Stewart said. “But if mobile phones are available to three- to eight-year-olds I can’t believe for a moment that can be justified.
“What about kids from eight to 14 years? I believe that is a judgment that parents have to make but they have to have the evidence available to them. My belief is that they should take a precautionary approach and that they should use them for as short a time as possible and they should use text messaging as much as possible.”
A quarter of seven- to 10-year-olds now own a mobile phone, according to latest figures, double the levels in 2001. Following Prof Stewart’s report, a company that launched the UK’s first mobile phone specifically designed for children announced it was suspending sales. Communic8 launched the MyMo five months ago, saying it was designed to help four- to eight-year-olds contact their parents in an emergency.
The company’s marketing director, Adam Stephenson, said: “We launched the product specifically because we thought it could address security concerns of parents. We absolutely do not want to damage children’s health. We have decided to suspend sales of the MyMo pending a chance to look at the Stewart report in detail.”
Prof Stewart, a former chief scientific adviser to the government, first warned of the possible risks to children using mobile phones in a report in 2000, which found no substantiated evidence that emissions from handsets were harmful.
Yesterday’s report came to a similar conclusion: “There is no hard evidence at present that the health to the public, in general, is being affected adversely by the use of mobile phone technologies.”
However, Prof Stewart admitted that new research carried out across Europe meant he was now “more concerned” about health risks than five years ago.
Last year, a study of 750 people by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden reported that using a mobile phone for 10 years or more could quadruple the risk of acoustic neuroma, a rare tumour on the nerve between the ear and the brain. Separate research in Germany linked emissions from mobile phone base stations to DNA damage, and possibly cancer.
A Dutch study in 2003 suggested that the new, more powerful 3G phones can affect brain function, though Prof Stewart cautioned that the work has some limitations and needs to be repeated.
“All of these studies have yet to be replicated and are of varying quality, but we can’t dismiss them out of hand,” he said. “This is still a relatively new area and the divergent views show how more research is needed.”
Many other research projects have failed to establish any risk to health, and scientists have yet to identify a mechanism by which electromagnetic radiation could damage biological systems and so affect health.
The NRPB report warned that, because mobile phone use is a relatively recent phenomenon, no reliable long-term epidemiological analysis of the risks in large enough populations is available.
A World Health Organisation project called Interphone that has followed 1,000 people for the last decade will report its findings in the next few months. A separate long term international study to assess the health of 250,000 mobile phone users will start this year, but is not expected to release any results until 2020.
Yesterday’s report called for a review of the planning process that places mobile phone masts.
“The planning process on base stations needs to be revisited and updated,” Prof Stewart said, adding that although exposure from masts is much lower than from phones, he believed they should not be sited near schools.
He also called for clearer information to be made available about how much energy from different types of mobile phones is absorbed by the body - known as specific energy absorption rate.
The Mobile Operators Association, representing the five UK mobile phone networks, said: “Parents need to weigh up the possibility of future unknown health effects against the tangible security benefits provided by this technology. All mobile phones sold in the UK comply with international health and safety exposure guidelines set by independent scientific experts.”
The Department of Health said: “The new NRPB report concludes that there is no hard evidence at present that the health of the public is being affected by the use of mobile phone technologies. The health advice remains the same. We continue to advise a precautionary approach to mobile phone use in under-16s.”
- Posted by sheila O'connor on February 12th, 2006