Phone masts: the fight begins

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HERE'S something that may turn out to be a straw in the wind. Warwickshire College in Leamington Spa has asked Vodafone to remove a mobile-phone mast from its roof, to safeguard its students' health.

Vodafone has not decided how to respond - as the college's demand may prove to be the first of many.

Now I'm sure you get as irritated as the rest of us by mobile phones in trains and other public places (except, of course, when we are using them ourselves). But have you noticed how view after view is spiked with the masts that relay the calls? More than 8,000 have sprouted all over the country, and a similar number are expected to go up in the next few years. Church towers, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, right next to homes - nowhere is immune, because they largely fall outside normal planning controls.

Legislation from the Eighties allows the phone companies to erect masts up to 45ft high without planning permission, while government guidelines instruct planners to "respond positively" to proposals for bigger ones. In opposition, Labour promised to review these rules, but hasn't.

One of the companies' few setbacks was at Ide Hill, Kent, where plans for a mast weredropped after an on-site speech by a PR woman, explaining how it was needed to fill a telecommunications black hole, was interrupted - by the ringing of her mobile.

o NEW research from Sweden suggests that radiation from mobile phones can give you headaches and a burning sensation on the skin. Other researchers say it may cause brain cancer, though they have produced no direct evidence. Vodafone says that using mobiles is "absolutely safe". But there are increasing calls for prudence, though not panic.

An Australian study claims that mice contract cancer when exposed to the kind of radiation used in the phones. Research in Australia, Britain and Hawaii shows higher levels of leukaemia in people living near broadcasting towers, which emit similar radiation. Epidemiologist Dr Debbie Eklund, former director of public health for North-West Surrey says there are grounds for "serious concern".

This September the World Health Organisation begins a major study to find out what risks there are, if any - but does not expect clear results for five to 10 years. Meantime, Warwickshire College wants to play safe.

o IT'S perhaps no coincidence that it's a college. Campuses the world over are becoming more environmentally friendly as student activism has turned from red to green. More than 1,000 campuses have conducted environmental audits. Students have forced four-fifths of US universities to develop recycling programmes. Harvard has saved more than $186,000 a year by replacing throwaway cups with washable ones.

o TALKING of Harvard, I met a scientist there a couple of years ago who says the way to avoid health risks from mobile phones is to talk, literally, through your hat. The problem, says Dr Ronold (no misspelling) King, is that the aerial on conventional phones goes next to the head, attracting radiation to the brain. He wants users to wear the aerials on top of their heads - but he admits there may be some resistance to going round looking like Teletubbies. So he has designed a helmet containing the phone with a mouthpiece, and a spike on the top for the aerial. But how would commuters, already annoyed by mobile calls, react to sharing a carriage with Prussian soldiers in pinstripes?