U.K. mobile phones to carry health warnings
THE FINAL WORDING is being worked out, and by Christmas all mobile telephone
handsets sold in the United Kingdom will come with leaflets warning of the potential
health risks the technology may pose to children, the Department of Health said on
"The leaflets should be available in the shops, probably before Christmas, but we
don't know exactly what date or exactly what they will say," said a spokeswoman for the
Department of Health who asked not to be named.
Already 34 million mobile handsets have been sold in the United Kingdom, according
to the Federation of the Electronics Industry (FEI), a group representing the mobile
telephone industry. Some estimates have put a quarter of those users under the age of
18, although the FEI feels that number "may be a little bit high," according to an FEI
spokeswoman who asked not to be named. About 4.5 million handsets were bought at
Christmas last year, and sales are expected to be high again this holiday season, the
FEI spokeswoman said.
The government leaflets are expected to warn parents to monitor and limit the
amount of time children spend talking on the mobile handsets, a warning which is based
on a report published last May by the United Kingdom's Independent Expert Group on
Mobile Phones (IEGMP), entitled "Mobile Phones and Health" and known as the Stewart
Report after William Stewart, chairman of the IEGMP.
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 phones
by children for nonessential calls should be discouraged," Stewart said in a press
conference last May.
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. But the report did, however, urge 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.
At the time, the Department of Health publicly welcomed the report's findings,
adding that the government has already commissioned an additional "multimillion pound
research strategy, spanning several years," and that they would print out leaflets to
be sold with mobile phones warning of possible health risks to children, according to
Yvette Cooper, Minister for Public Health.
"The leaflets aren't really news; I guess it's the fact that we're almost ready to
publish them that is causing attention," said the Department of Health spokeswoman on
Also adding fire to the debate are two articles published on Friday in The
Lancet journal presenting conflicting views on the public safety of mobile phones.
The articles, by Dr Kenneth Rothman, of Epidemiology Resources in Boston, and Gerard
Hyland, a theoretical biophysicist at the University of Warwick in England, look at the
issue from the viewpoints of epidemiology and mechanism, respectively.
In his Lancet article, Rothman found that driving while using mobile phones
was the greatest health risk posed by the technology. Heavy mobile users were involved
in twice as many fatal road accidents as light users, according to Rothman. The Stewart
Report did recommend that drivers should be "dissuaded" from using either handheld or
hands-free phones while driving.
Although both Lancet articles agree that there is no conclusive evidence
about the possible health risks posed by mobile phones, Hyland claims there is enough
evidence that "the low-intensity, pulsed radiation currently used [in mobile phones]
can exert subtle nonthermal influences," especially in the case of children, putting
them at increased risk of headaches, memory loss, and sleeping disorders.
Furthermore, Hyland criticizes the mobile telecommunications industry for hiding
behind the Stewart Report. "The Stewart Report, published in May 2000, makes some
sensible recommendations, but unfortunately some of its greyer areas are now being
exploited by the industry to obfuscate the issue," Hyland said in the article.
"The Stewart Report did state clearly that mobile phones were not proved to cause
adverse health effects," the FEI spokeswoman said. "When it comes to the leaflets, we
don't know that the Health Department has confirmed they will be available before
Christmas, but we agree that first of all the health and safety of children are a top
As for the study promised in May by the Department of Health, little progress has
been made on that front. "We said in May that we had commissioned a study. The group
that will take that study forward has not yet been established nor have we determined
how much it will cost," said the Department of Health spokeswoman.