Focus: Hello? Hello? Is anybody listening?

Five years ago Sir William Stewart warned of the dangers of excessive mobile phone use by children. Why has it taken until this week for us to take note? Geoffrey Lean reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Liberating, life-changing technologies have a way of coming back to bite us once we have become addicted to them. Burning fossil fuels, which made industrial civilisation possible, now endangers it through global warming. Television, which brought the world into our sitting rooms, now stands accused of stifling home-grown cultures across the globe. And the internal combustion engine, which enabled lives of previously unimaginable mobility, takes a terrible toll of life in accidents and pollution. Is the same thing about to happen with the mobile phone?

Liberating, life-changing technologies have a way of coming back to bite us once we have become addicted to them. Burning fossil fuels, which made industrial civilisation possible, now endangers it through global warming. Television, which brought the world into our sitting rooms, now stands accused of stifling home-grown cultures across the globe. And the internal combustion engine, which enabled lives of previously unimaginable mobility, takes a terrible toll of life in accidents and pollution. Is the same thing about to happen with the mobile phone?

Most of us could now not imagine life without them. Many teenagers say they define their lives. More and more young children are catching the bug. Yet there are increasing signs of trouble in store. Disturbing evidence is accumulating from sound, respected research that the radiation they emit may damage brains, particularly young ones, causing cancer and early senility.

An official report last week, while stressing that there is, as yet, no "hard evidence" of a threat to general public, partly because the harm may take decades to take effect, warned that there are good grounds for concern. And it firmly recommended that the use of mobiles by children should be "minimised".

"I don't think we can put our hands on our hearts and say mobile phones are safe," said Sir William Stewart, a former government chief scientist, who chaired the study. "If there are risks - and we think there may be risks - then the people who are going to be most affected are children. And the younger the child, the greater the risk."

Alarmingly, this is the second time that an official inquiry headed by Sir William has come to this sobering conclusion. The first Stewart report, published in May 2000, produced a series of sensible, achievable recommendations. They included: discouraging children from using mobiles, and stopping the industry from promoting them to the young; publicising the widely varying radiation levels of different handsets so that customers, and parents, could choose those emitting the least; making the erection of all phone masts subject to democratic control, through the planning system, which they at present largely escape; and stopping the building of masts where the radiation "beam of greatest intensity" fell on schools, unless the school and parents agreed. The Government publicly accepted most of these recommendations and then, as The Independent on Sunday has repeatedly pointed out, failed to implement them. In doing so, it has probably lost any chance to curb the use of mobiles by children and teenagers.

Since the first Stewart report, while ministers have done nothing, the use of mobiles by the young has doubled. One in four primary school children now has a handset. Among secondary school students the figure rises to nine out of 10, of whom one in 10 spends more than three-quarters of an hour on them every day.

There are 50 million mobiles in Britain, also twice as many as five years ago, making a staggering 20 billion calls a year. Masts are proliferating to cope with all this traffic. There are already some 40,000 around the country and, as The Independent on Sunday reported last month, thousands more are to be erected over the next three years. Experts predict "an explosion" of them around schools.

Tackling this now, at least five years after the job should have begun, feels like closing the stable door after the foals have bolted. Children and teenagers are not going to give back their phones.

Sir William and his deputy on his first inquiry, Professor Lawrie Challis, have both banned their grandchildren from having mobiles. But effective action is going to have to be much more general - and must come, however late, from the Government.

There are, however, some sensible steps to be taken and - surprise, surprise - they involve going back to the recommendations shamefully ignored in 2000.

First, users of mobiles, young and old, have a right to know what risks they may be taking and how to minimise them. The first Stewart report urged the Government to distribute a leaflet with "clearly understandable information" to every home in Britain.

Ministers actually produced two leaflets, one on phones and one on masts, but restricted distribution to shops, libraries, post offices and doctors' surgeries. And, as last week's report tactfully says, "the extent to which this information helps to inform public opinion is not clear". They should now implement the original recommendation.

The new leaflet should lay out what is known about risks to health, summarise the advice of the Stewart reports, and give tips on how to minimise exposure. These would clearly include using a landline or texting where possible, and keeping mobile conversations short.

Hands-free operation cuts exposure by about half, although the report concludes that the benefits of radiation shield buttons stuck on phones are less clear. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, it is better to use your phone near a mast, where there is a strong signal: when far away, the phone needs to use much more power to communicate.

Even more important, people should be encouraged to buy the phones that emit the least radiation, Levels emitted by different handsets on the market vary at least tenfold, and the first Stewart report recommended that these should be clearly marked on the phones and the boxes. Ministers promised to implement something like this, but did not do so, and last week's report concludes that the information is still "difficult" for the public to obtain.

This, then, is the second step that ministers must now take. Providing the figures prominently with phones and publishing league tables would give consumers the chance to make informed choices, and would encourage manufacturers to drive radiation levels down, benefiting everyone.

Third, the Government should regulate the cynical promotion of phones and accessories to children and young people, intensified since Sir William first warned of the risks to the young.

Fourth, it must finally accept the 2000 report's recommendation on masts near schools. The masts emit much less radiation than the phones themselves, but people are exposed to it for hours at a time, without their consent.

Last month the Court of Appeal opened the floodgates, by overturning the decisions of the local council and a government inspector - and an appeal by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister - and giving the go-ahead for a mast to be built near three schools in Harrogate.

Experts now expect a rush to build on school grounds, some of the most attractive open spaces for masts in towns and cities. Mr Prescott only had himself to blame for his defeat, because, ludicrously, the official planning guidance from his own department forbids local authorities for taking possible effects on health into account, limiting them to aesthetic considerations only.

This ridiculous and unsatisfactory state of affairs must be the subject of the fifth change.

And, sixth, the Government should exert democratic control over the erection of all masts by bringing them under the planning system. This is already the case in Scotland and Northern Ireland. There is no good reason why it should not be the same in the rest of the country.

So, there are six straightforward measures the Government should take. If ministers had any shame they would implement them immediately.

But don't hold your breath. Judging by the record of the last five years their response is likely to be, "Don't call us: we'll call you."

'We're not Luddites, we just don't want masts near schools'

The parents and children of three schools in Harrogate have taken their fight against a new mobile phone mast to Downing Street and the High Court. Theirs has become a test case that will protect or expose hundreds of schools, with 8,000 more phone masts planned for the next three years.

"We're not the first school to have a run-in with the mobile phone operators, and the operators have lost most of them," says Mark Sheerin, a parent.

"But if they kept chipping away and chipping away, eventually one case was bound to crack for them, and unfortunately it was us."

Harrogate council initially turned down the application for a new mast close to Claro Road, where more than 1,500 pupils attend St Robert's and Woodfield primaries and Granby High School, Harrogate.

That decision was overturned in the High Court last June, and Campus, the Campaign Against Masts Put Up Near Schools, was formed. A 1,700-signature petition was delivered to No 10 in October.

But a month later the Court of Appeal dismissed objections by government lawyers, leaving the mobile phone companies clear winners of the test case.

The Government received £22.5bn from the mobile companies in 3G licence fees, and some of the Harrogate parents feel government lawyers made only a token case at the Court of Appeal hearing and "wanted to lose".

But these are not conspiracy theorists, just ordinary people, concerned about their kids.

Campus chairman Dr Peter Brooks, an engineering lecturer, says: "This is like getting an oil tanker to turn around. As the law now stands, only aesthetic considerations can be used to refuse planning applications for masts: health issues don't count."

Now Campus is hoping a Private Member's Bill will go before Parliament. It recently served Harrogate council with a Notice of Intent, warning of lawsuits if any health problems result from the mast after the upgrade takes place.

"We're not Luddites," says Mark Sheerin, "as adults we're quite happy to use mobiles. If someone said today we can prove these masts are safe, we'd be the first to cheer, but nobody knows. We're not saying tear down masts. We just think they shouldn't be put near schools."

Michael Bygrave

Interviewees are parents or pupils at St Roberts Primary or Granby High School, Harrogate, North Yorkshire

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