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The BBC's James Westhead
"This issue is far from settled"
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Patricia Hewitt, Trade and Industry minister
"This research is very high quality"
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Roger Coghill, Coghill Research Laboratories
"They are perfectly safe if you use them normally"
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Tuesday, 8 August, 2000, 08:46 GMT 09:46 UK
Mobile users get mixed safety signals
Hands-free mobiles have raised health fears
Hands-free mobiles have raised health fears
By consumer affairs correspondent Karen Bowerman

Research suggests hands-free sets for mobile phones are safer than holding mobiles directly against your head.

The findings, carried out by scientists on behalf of the UK's Department of Trade and Industry, contradict those published by the Consumers' Association last April.

It has led to further confusion over the health risks associated with mobile phones.

About 27 million people in the UK own a mobile phone.

But do they ever worry about how safe they are to use, and whether hands-free sets, or earpieces are a blessing, or a danger to their health?


Four months ago, the Consumers' Association published research which suggested the cables of some hands-free kits acted as aerials, focussing radiation on people's brains, and even increasing it by 300%.

The sets tested were the BT Cellnet hands-free accessory kit for the Philips Savvy phone, and the hands-free earpiece for the Ericsson A1018s, made by the Carphone Warehouse.

The results took the Consumers' Association by surprise and led to huge headlines.

Many people appeared to stop using the sets, which up until then had been widely thought of as the reducing the potential health risks associated with mobile phones - a claim not promoted by the companies.

The new research published on Monday refutes the Consumers' Association's findings.

'Not definitive'

It claims hands-free kits actually help reduce radiation, and that it is safer to use an earpiece than to hold a phone directly against your head.

Patricia Hewitt, Telecommunications Minister, said: "This is a very thorough, careful piece of research, and certainly its findings are in line with most of the earlier studies.

"But we are going to keep the whole issue of mobile phones and health under review so that we are always up to date with the latest scientific findings."

But the Consumers' Association is refusing to back down.

It says the government used different tests from the ones used by its own experts - and that the new results were "not necessarily definitive".

The association claims the government-backed tests were originally developed to test phones rather than handsets, and that the methods used are still relatively new.

It seems the two sides are likely to differ for some time to come, appearing only to agree on one point - that a universally accepted test needs to be introduced if the risks associated with using mobile phones are to be explored further.


So, what should consumers do?

If they are really worried, the safest and most simple advice is to cut down the amount of time spent on the mobile, or try to stop using it altogether.

For those who rely on them that bit too much, the research suggests there are precautions which can be taken to reduce the risk of radiation even further:

  • make sure the earpiece cable is free to hang down from the ear
  • keep the cable away from the phone's antenna/aerial
  • try not to place the phone directly against the body
  • if the phone is worn on a belt or in a pocket, make sure the keypad is towards the body to reduce the risk of absorption
A more reassuring result was that all the phones tested fell well within the exposure guidelines set out by the National Radiation Protection Board (NRPB) and the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).

There were also no significant differences in performance between the various models tested.

Roger Coghill, a biologist who has studied the effects of mobile phones, said more research was needed. He also criticised recent studies and said more work should be done to see how the phones are affecting people's health.

"We don't really know enough yet," he said. "We need to know whether these phones are risking our health not whether their levels are high or low."

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See also:

30 Jun 00 | Health
Report dismisses phone mast fears
10 May 00 | Health
Child mobile phone warning
05 Aug 00 | Americas
Cancer victim sues Motorola
07 Apr 00 | Talking Point
Could you ditch your mobile?
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