Controversial devices which emit painful high-frequency sounds audible only to children and young adults may be banned in Britain today following a debate at the Council of Europe.
Around 5,000 of the Mosquito devices are believed to be in use throughout the UK – considerably more than anywhere else in Europe – and are aimed at discouraging young people from gathering in public areas such as around shops where they might intimidate others.
The device, marketed in France as the "Beethoven", has attracted considerable criticism, not least because their use is not regulated and in most cases they are installed with no warning or information being given out.
The devices, which cost £500, have a range of up to 40 metres and can be set to work continuously. Around a quarter of local councils and police authorities have admitted to using or endorsing the devices. But now a Council of Europe report has found them "degrading and discriminatory" and they may now be banned permanently.
Piotr Wach, of the body's committee on culture, science and education, has also drawn attention to the fact that there has been no research into the health implications of the devices for children and unborn babies.
"People over 25 are not aware that they are being exposed to this kind of strong acoustic emission because it is outside their hearing range," he said.
"But for teenagers, it is extremely irritating and often even painful. Many children, in particular babies, have dramatic reactions to the sound."
Sir Al Aynsley-Green, a former children's commissioner for England, set up the Buzz Off campaign which calls for a ban of Mosquito devices. He has objected to the "collective punishment" it imposes on all young people.
The Children's Society and the Children's Rights Alliance for England complained to the UN committee on the rights of the child last year. It said: "Children who do not talk may be distressed by the noise but be unable to move out of the zone."
The UN committee has since called on governments to "reconsider the Mosquito devices, insofar as they may violate the rights of children".
Their recommendations were not taken up by the Home Office or the EU commission, who concluded there was insufficient information to establish guidelines for safe exposure to high frequencies. The Association of Chief Police Officers refuses to give the Mosquito national approval, citing a "lack of evidence that it is safe". The technology plays on a phenomenon called presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss.
The human rights group Liberty is considering asking the European Court of Human Rights to rule on whether the devices should be banned.
Shami Chakrabarti, the group's director, said: "What type of society uses a low-level sonic weapon on its children? Imagine the outcry if a machine was designed to cause blanket discomfort to one sex or ethnic group."
British teenagers have been resourceful in combating their frustrations with the device. In 2006, technology-savvy school pupils recorded and distributed the sound as a ring-tone named "Team Buzz", allowing users to receive calls and texts during class with their teachers unable to hear.
A Cardiff teacher said: "All the kids were laughing about something but I didn't know what. They could hear a phone ringing but I couldn't."