LONDON (05/11/2000) - A U.K. government-appointed commission today warned that though no conclusive evidence currently exists that mobile telephones are harmful, a cautious approach of risk management -- especially in relation to children -- should be taken by the government, the telecommunications industry and consumers while further studies are carried out.
The recommendation was made by the U.K.'s Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP) in its report released today entitled "Mobile Phones and Health."
"We conclude that it is not possible at present to say that exposure to radio frequency (RF) radiation is totally without potential adverse health effects, and that the gaps in knowledge are sufficient to justify a precautionary approach," said William Stewart, Chairman of the IEGMP in a press conference.
The report is also being referred to as the Stewart Inquiry.
The report singled out mobile phone use by children, the elderly and the infirm as cause for increased concern. "Children may be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head and a longer lifetime of exposure. We believe that the widespread use of mobile phone by children for nonessential calls should be discouraged," Stewart said.
Stewart told reporters that the independent group did find some scientific evidence to suggest that there may be biological effects that occur when mobile phones are used at exposure rates that are even lower than the guidelines set by the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) -- the board that commissioned the report.
Upon the request of the U.K. government in April of last year -- specifically the Department of Public Health and the Department of Trade and Industry -- the NRPB assembled the IEGMP and commissioned the Stewart Inquiry.
The IEGMP did not set out guidelines for how many minutes per day would be considered safe for a child to use a mobile phone, nor did the group give its age definition of a "child." Stewart did say that when his grandchildren (currently aged two and four) reached the ages of five and seven, he would not allow them "unfettered access" to mobile phones.
"We don't feel it is up to us to specify an age," said a commission member, Professor Colin Blakemore. "The evidence is that the growth of the brain is complete by puberty."
The report, however, urges the mobile phone industry to "refrain from promoting the use of mobile phones by children." Some companies currently allow for cheaper phone usage after 6 p.m.
The U.K. government immediately expressed its support for the Stewart Inquiry.
"We welcome his group's report, which breaks new ground," said Yvette Cooper, Minister for Public Health, in a statement.
Specifically, the government has already commissioned an additional "multimillion pound research strategy, spanning several years," Cooper said.
Details of that report are pending.
According to Cooper, the U.K. government has already accepted many of the recommendations of the Stewart Inquiry and is "giving urgent consideration" to the more detailed recommendations.
The mobile telephone industry, as represented by the Federation of the Electronics Industry (FEI) also welcomed the report, calling it balanced and comprehensive in a statement. Specifically, the industry said it will support scientific research that is within the framework of relevant World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, and will support the report's proposed research program, the FEI said.
The Stewart Inquiry recommends that:
-- drivers should be "dissuaded" from using either handheld or hands-free phones while driving;-- the U.K., like the European Union (EU), should adopt guidelines established in 1998 by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) for public exposure to radio frequencies. The U.K. government currently follows the NRPB guidelines;-- the U.K. should immediately adopt the international standard for the assessment of specific energy absorption rates (SAR) values from mobile phones;-- the information on SAR values be made available to consumers when they buy their mobile devices, as well as in leaflets available in stores, in the individual mobile phones themselves (via downloaded information) and on a national Web site;-- priority be given to research related to signals from handsets, which should include the effects on brain function, consequences of exposures to pulsed signals and the possible impact on health of subcellular and cellular changes caused by RF radiation;-- an independent panel should be established to carry out this research which would be funded on an equal basis by the government and the mobile telephone industry;-- the U.K. government should establish a national system designed to independently test shielding devices and hand-free kits and that it distributes testing information in a clear and effective manner, including creating a type of "seal of approval;"-- that base stations, including those with masts under 15 meters, have their permit development rights revoked and re-reviewed;-- a template of protocols should be developed by the U.K. government, in tandem with the telecommunications industry and customers, for issuing new permits for the development of base stations. Furthermore, a planning template should be established within the next 12 months; -- base stations should be randomly audited with particular attention paid to base stations that are situated near schools and other "sensitive" sites, such as hospitals;-- that an ombudsman be appointed to help make decisions on the location of base stations when agreement cannot be reached locally;-- the mobile telephone industry "actively pursue a policy of mast sharing and roaming where practicable;"-- that a logo warning caution for exposure to base stations be designed and implemented within the next 12 months by the British Standards Institute (BSI).
About 470 million people worldwide are using mobile phones, with that number expected to grow to one billion by the end of 2002, according to figures published by the FEI.
IEGMP, can be contacted in care of the National Radiological Protection Board, located in Oxfordshire, England, at +44-1235-822-742, or at http://www.iegmp.org.uk/. The Federation of the Electronics Industry can be contacted online at http://www.fei.org.uk/.