No child under eight should have a mobile, says inquiry

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No child under eight should have a mobile phone, and base masts should be kept away from schools, the chairman of an official inquiry into the safety of mobiles said yesterday.

No child under eight should have a mobile phone, and base masts should be kept away from schools, the chairman of an official inquiry into the safety of mobiles said yesterday.

Sir William Stewart, head of the National Radiological Protection Board, said he was more concerned about the risks to health from mobile phones than in 2000, when the first report into their safety was published.

Although there was "no hard evidence" they caused harm, the number of mobile phone users had doubled to 50 million since 2000 and there were now 40,000 base stations. "Use of mobile phones has escalated and they have become part of everyday life," he said. "They are essential to business, widely used by the man in the street and have become a fashion accessory. But just because 50 million people use them it does not mean they are absolutely safe."

Mobile phones had a short history and health problems could take decades to emerge, he added. Some studies had indicated possible adverse effects, including an increase in acoustic neuromas - a non-cancerous brain tumour - in long-term users in Sweden, and changes to cognitive function in Dutch users.

The studies were not all robust and their findings might never be confirmed but they could not be dismissed, Sir William said. "Against that, it is important for us to continue to have a precautionary approach." If anyone was at risk, the most vulnerable group was likely to be young children with thinner skulls and developing brains.

Sir William said parents might give teenagers mobiles for security reasons but added: "When it comes to three- to eight-year-olds, I can't believe [giving them mobiles] can be readily justified. For eight- to 14-year-olds that is a judgement parents have to make. My view is that on the evidence we have, children should use mobile phones for as short a time as possible, they should use text messaging where possible and should choose a phone with a low SAR value [specific energy absorption rate, a measure of the microwave radiation emitted]."

The report claimed its first casualty yesterday when the company Commun8, which launched the UK's first mobile phone designed for children in the summer, said that it was suspending sales of MyMo, which is aimed at four- to eight-year-olds, while it examined the Stewart report. Adam Stephenson, the marketing director, said: "We do not want to damage children's health."

Sir William's report, with conclusions broadly similar to those reached five years ago, attacked Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, for its "disappointingly slow" progress in auditing base stations to check emissions and for its confusing and out-of-date website which made it difficult to find information.

He called for an independent review of the planning process for base stations, increased monitoring and more information about their emissions.

Despite evidence suggesting emissions from distant masts were a small percentage of those from mobile phones held to the head public concerns had not abated, he said.

Asked about the siting of masts near schools, Sir William said: "On a precautionary basis I would prefer them not to be there, even though the evidence suggests the emissions are low. The planning process ought to take the views of parents into account."

He said he kept his own use of mobile phones as low as possible. "I have a mobile phone and I probably use it daily. I use it for as short a time as possible and use a landline when possible. My son, who is 40, has a mobile phone which he uses infrequently and our grandchildren don't have them."

Caroline Spelman, the MP for Meriden and the Conservatives' local government spokesman, said: "Under John Prescott, decisions on the location of mobile phone masts have been allowed to ride roughshod over local, environmental and safety concerns. We must address the feelings of powerlessness and frustration experienced by those living under the threat of badly sited masts."

A spokesman for the Mobile Operators Association, representing the five big UK networks, said there were no figures for mobile use by under-eights. He added: "The key point is there is no hard information linking the use of mobile telephony with adverse health effects. We remain committed to addressing public concerns in an open and transparent way."

THE RISKS

* By far the biggest risk is their potential to cause accidents while driving - whether hand-held or hands-free. The report says the risk is "significant".

* Long-term study of people in Sweden found an increase in acoustic neuromas - benign growths on the auditory nerve - after 10 years of use.

* A Dutch study suggested cognitive functions such as memory and reaction times may be affected by exposure to mobile phone signals.

* A German study showed an increase of cancer cases around base stations.

* Laboratory studies in EU countries have suggested emissions from mobile phones may cause damage to DNA.

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