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The BBC's James Westhead
"After past health risks, the government is anxious to share all information with the public"
 real 56k

Friday, 8 December, 2000, 10:26 GMT
7m for mobile health research
child mobiles
The advice discourages child mobile phone use
UK ministers and industry are to fund a 7m research programme into the health effects of mobile phone use, it was announced on Friday.

In addition, leaflets informing the public about the known risks of using mobiles will be given out with each new one sold.

If you use a mobile phone, you can choose to minimise your exposure to radio waves by keeping your calls short

Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer
This will advise users to keep calls short, and discourage children from using mobiles except for emergency calls.

The UK Government is responding to the Stewart Inquiry, which recommended a precautionary approach after examining all the current scientific evidence on phone safety.

The leaflets will also contain advice about the risks of living or working next to mobile phone base stations and radio masts.

An audit of base stations is to be carried out by the Radio Communications Agency, focusing particularly on those sited close to schools.

Keep it short

England's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, said: "It is essential that we provide people with the evidence on this issue to allow them to make an informed choice about using their mobile phone.

"On the basis of the precautionary approach outlined in the Stewart report, the leaflets provide advice that, if you use a mobile phone, you can choose to minimise your exposure to radio waves by keeping your calls short.

"In the case of children and young people under the age of 16, the UK Chief Medical Officers strongly advise that they should be encouraged to use mobile phones for essential purposes only and to keep all calls short.

The government advice is that consumers check the "specific absorption rate" (SAR) value which is given for each mobile.

This measures the rate at which radiation from the handset is absorbed by the body, and there are wide variations between different makes of phone. A European standard in SAR is due to be introduced next year.

A task force to oversee the research programme is to be chaired by Sir William Stewart, who led the original inquiry team.

'Subtle biological changes'

His report said while there was no strong evidence that health could be damaged by the phones, there was "preliminary" evidence that subtle biological changes could take place.

Sir William Stewart
Sir William Stewart will head the task force
The extra precautions for younger mobile users were recommended because any emerging health effects might well be more pronounced in the developing brains of young people.

Their thinner skulls might also afford less protection against the radiowave radiation emitted by the phones, should that prove to be a hazard.

Statistics suggest that there are 25m mobile phones in use in the UK - a quarter of these belong to the under-18s.

The main health effect noticed by researchers is the fact that drivers are at more risk of crashes while talking into the handsets.

Sir Liam Donaldson said: "What is clear is that using a mobile phone whilst driving significantly increases the risk of an accident. Even using a hands-free kit whilst driving increases the risk, because it distracts the driver's attention from the road."

Hands-free controversy

Mobile phone safety remains highly controversial among scientists. Some claim that symptoms such as headache, memory loss and sleeping disorders could be caused by excessive mobile phone use.

Other scientists believe that the phones may even cause brain tumours in a tiny number of cases.

Even hands-free kits, which claim to reduce exposure to the radiowave radiation by moving the handset further from the ear, have been criticised.

Australian scientists claimed that the wire leading to the earpiece could actually intensify the radiation received by the brain rather than reduce it.

However, these findings have been heavily criticised by other researchers.

The electronics industry maintains that the government is issuing simple advice, rather than a health warning, as there is still no evidence to suggest a health risk.

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See also:

10 May 00 | Health
Child mobile phone warning
03 Nov 00 | Health
Mobiles 'cut teenage smoking'
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