John Walsh: I never used to worry that mobiles could damage your health. I worry now


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The Independent Online

I have ghastly suspicions that my teenage daughter may take up smoking. Both her siblings puff away like Stephenson's Rocket, so do the coolest boys in her class. Soon I'll start finding Rizla papers used as bookmarks in her A-level copy of Frankenstein.

A long-term smoker myself, I'll feel pious and hypocritical in alerting her to the dangers of this stupid habit and tell her what awful, day-by-day damage it'll do to her lungs. Then I watch her trit-trotting down the street with her iPhone clamped to her ear or held before her sweet face as she texts and tweets and keeps five conversations going – and I think: is it time we got serious about mobiles?

Will I go on laughing at the warnings that have circled around mobile phone use, like sharks around a sailboat, for 10 years, or start taking them seriously? There have been so many scares. Ten years ago people protested about Tetra radio masts. Tetra stood for "Terrestrial Trunked Radio," a form of microwave mobile communications technology to be used by the emergency services. Country neighbours warned each other the masts transmitted radio waves in frequencies close to the human brain's – and it was true that policemen using Tetra equipment damaged their health. But the protests went unheeded.

When we were told phones had to be switched off on planes in case they monkeyed with cockpit technology, some worried: "If they can bugger up the Artificial Horizon, what might they do to my Non-Artificial Brain?" Then we were warned not to use mobiles in petrol stations because they produced "sparks" that ignited petrol fumes. YouTube showed lots of footage of gas-station explosions, which no one could properly explain.

I pooh-poohed all these things as scare tactics until the other day when a lady behind a Shell garage counter told me about her colleague in Bristol, who burned to death after his phone rang. She explained that electromagnetic waves created enough static electricity to light gasoline fumes. Suddenly I began to believe that all the idiot warnings couldn't be ignored any more.

Two things have clinched it. One was the news that several governments, most recently Israel, want to put warning signs on phones The other was the response of John Cooke, from the Mobile Operators Association: "There is good evidence that the proliferation of warnings about risk, where there is no good evidence for such risk, is counter-productive and bad for public health."

Bad for public health to worry about your child's risk of getting cancer – did you ever hear anything so crass? Are we to ignore the signs until people like Mr Doubting Thomas Cooke are sufficiently impressed by the mortality figures? Or do we wrestle the bloody devices away from our children's heads and tell them: "Text only from now on; and keep your phone in your desk or handbag"? It's an uphill struggle – but it's got to start somewhere.

One wrong word and you're in serious trouble

Here's a cautionary tale about dangerous words. Michel Haddi, the French-Algerian A-List fashion and celebrity photographer, a friend of Clint, Marty, Uma and Cameron, is used to being shown respect as he jets between New York, London and Morocco. So he was surprised to see, on a train rattling to King's Cross, a woman glaring at him as he chatted on his mobile to his agent about a forthcoming exhibition. And even more surprised to be nabbed by police on the platform and told a passenger had fingered him as a terrorist and a paedophile.

Haddi was, understandably, outraged. He is vaguely dark-skinned, but hardly Arabic. And the paedophile accusation? It was, it turned out, occasioned by one word he'd used: "download". He'd been referring to pictures for his exhibition. The suspicious woman knew the word only in relation to child porn. Remember that next time you're in mid-blather on the 7.13 to Orpington.