'Final' mobile phones risk inquiry to be launched

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The Independent Online

The government announced yesterday that it will spend millions of pounds over the next few years trying to clear up the confusion once and for all over whether mobile phones cause ill health. The move follows a series of recommendations by a committee of 12 independent experts.

The committee found noevidence to show that the devices cause brain tumours, memory loss or any other medical condition but concluded that more research would be needed to eliminate all possible health risks of cellphones.

The committee declined to give detailed guidance to parents of children who use mobile phones, arguing that the evidence should be made available for them to make up their own minds. Professor Sir William Stewart, chairman of the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, said that although there was no evidence of a risk to children, he would advise parents against allowing their offspring "unfettered access" to the instruments.

"If there are currently unrecognised adverse health effects from the use of mobile phones, children may be more vulnerable. In line with the precautionary approach, widespread use by children for non-essential calls should be discouraged," Professor Stewart said. Asked if he would allow his family to use them, Professor Stewart said that he would not allow his grandchildren who are only two and four years old. "The younger the child, the more care should be taken in allowing them to use mobile phones," he said.

Scientists on the independent expert group said if radiation from the devices was ever shown to be unsafe, it was more likely to affect children because their brain tissue is still developing, their skulls are thinner and their smaller heads absorb a greater dose.

The committee's report recommends that the industry should refrain from promoting the use of cellphones by children and that it should contribute to the cost of future research. But it fails to give advice on how long children should use mobile phones for each day, at what age they should start to use them and whether they should use "hands-free" devices.

Yvette Cooper, Public Health minister, said Professor Stewart would work closely with Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, to prepare a strategy for further health studies. Professor Stewart said that the greatest proven risk to health from cellphones was using them while driving.

Talking on a mobile significantly increases the risk of accidents due to driver distraction irrespective of whether a "hands-free" device is used, the report says.

"Overall, we conclude that the detrimental effects of hands-free operation are sufficiently large that drivers should be dissuaded from using either hand-held or hands-free phones whilst on the move," it says.

The explosive increase in mobile phone use - there are currently 25 million in Britain alone - and the relatively short period since their introduction means that it is still too early to decide whether they could be responsible for small, long-term increases in risks to general health.