Lend an ear to government warnings on mobile phones

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One of the most chilling observations made by the Phillips inquiry into the BSE crisis was that more questions should have been asked when the government banned British beef from baby food. If we could not be sure that it was safe for babies, why was it safe for children? Or for adults?

One of the most chilling observations made by the Phillips inquiry into the BSE crisis was that more questions should have been asked when the government banned British beef from baby food. If we could not be sure that it was safe for babies, why was it safe for children? Or for adults?

The news that the present Government will require health-warning notices to be issued to the purchasers of mobile phones should produce similar and justifiable alarm. Six months ago, the Government's adviser concluded that children should be discouraged from "widespread" use of mobile phones. If the precautionary principle required young people to reduce their use, why not the rest of us?

The argument is that adults are better able to make up their own minds about the risks, which are so far hypothetical and unproven. But what should the intelligent and responsible adult conclude on the basis of the scant evidence so far?

Mostly, this comes down to one's outlook on life. An optimist will point to public health scares on which government advice turned out to be wrong, such as on red wine, and pooh-pooh the unproven effects of high-voltage power lines and cholesterol. A pessimist will point to the series of health scares where the right conclusion was resisted for too long: tobacco, Thalidomide, BSE. In each case, vested interests and the inertia of existing consumption patterns held people back from drawing conclusions which were obvious in retrospect.

The vested interest of mobile phone companies, worth billions virtually overnight, is as strong as any, while the convenience of mobiles has woven them rapidly into the fabric of daily life for 25 million Britons. There is no evidence yet, however, of any harm being done by the radio waves used by mobile phones, and no reason to think they should be any more harmful than the electromagnetic radiation absorbed from various other gadgets. The most suggestive piece of evidence so far is the research which showed that use of a mobile phone speeded up the brain's reaction time, because it pointed to observable physical effects.

The prudent approach for the individual, therefore, would be to minimise mobile phone use until further research is carried out - research with which the Government is rightly pressing ahead.

Meanwhile, firm and unforgiving action should be taken against the one form of mobile phone use which probably causes death and serious injury, namely the use of one while driving.

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