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Risks of mobile phones to children are being 'downplayed'

Vicky Fobel, MobileWise

14th November, 2011

Industry repeats the mantra 'children should be discouraged from using mobiles excessively' while doing nothing to ensure it happens, says Vicky Fobel from the campaign group MobileWise

The wireless world is exploding. New wireless applications are being developed constantly and there are now more mobile phones than people in the UK. Even young children are buying into mobile technology in their millions.

Along with the convenience mobiles afford, however, come concerns. How is the radiation they produce affecting our health and the health of our children?

Official advice acknowledges that there may be a problem but plays it down. Manufacturers meanwhile imply there is no evidence of ill-effects and that, if mobiles were harmful, those problems would be manifesting themselves by now.

Both ignore the mounting scientific evidence pointing to damage to health from prolonged mobile use, which was acknowledged in May by the World Health Organization’s scientific panel. It classified the radiation emitted by mobile phones and wireless devices as “possibly carcinogenic” on the basis that a causal link between mobile phone exposure and two types of tumour was possible based on current evidence.

This classification is often the first step towards an exposure being classified as probably or definitely carcinogenic. Indeed, some of the scientists on the panel argued that the higher level categorisation (probably carcinogenic) was already justified.

Knowing the evidence of harmful effects to be substantial, MobileWise wanted public and policy-makers to see for themselves. Our new report, endorsed by senior scientists and medics, reviews and references more than 200 peer-reviewed published studies which together point to health effects ranging from brain tumours to genetic damage and from damage to fertility to suppressed melatonin production.

This substantial evidence-base has been largely obscured in a debate played out in the media, with its tendency to simplify complex issues. The literature encompasses so many separate specialities that it hadn’t all been assembled in one place before. Even some of the scientists working in the field are not familiar with the full body of research.

However, despite the accumulating research and the decision of the World Health Organization’s scientific panel, the phone industry and governments are predictably downplaying the risks. It’s a response that is all too familiar from other cases where the scientific picture has been unclear – from tobacco to global warming. Even when the evidence of a health problem has been overwhelming, action has been delayed: some 16 years elapsed between Sir Richard Doll publishing his seminal research confirming the smoking-cancer link and warnings appearing on cigarette packets. Even then, the warnings were anodyne.

As David Michaels illustrated exhaustively in his book Doubt is their Product, the tobacco industry enthusiastically manufactured doubt as incriminating research accumulated, so as to delay regulatory action. In the light of this history of evasion, are we really going to allow ourselves to be persuaded – by the mobile operators and manufacturers, and by a Government that nets billions from mobile phone tax and licence revenue – that these devices are safe enough even for our children to use habitually?

Waiting for conclusive proof of harm is surely irresponsible when the safety steps – from using a speakerphone or headset to not carrying the phone in a trouser pocket - are so simple and can dramatically cut exposure to potentially harmful radiation.

Advice to children

When we know that children absorb twice as much radiation into their heads as adults when on a call, how acceptable is it to allow the use of mobiles by the young to go uncontrolled? The Government and manufacturers seem content to reiterate the mantra that “children should be discouraged from using phones excessively” while doing nothing to ensure that it happens. The government first issued guidance 11 years ago recommending children limit their use of mobiles but we are yet to find a child or parent aware of that advice.

The industry, confronted by an increase in the medical evidence supporting biological harm from mobiles, is sticking doggedly to its line that the risks have not been “established”. You can almost hear the wheels of the doubt-manufacture machine turning.

While industry and our Government are paying lip service to precaution, some administrations are acting. France has brought in restrictions on use in primary schools, while Israel has just launched an education programme to teach schoolchildren about the dangers of radiation exposure. Phone shops in San Francisco will soon be obliged to give out safety information.

They have not waited for absolute proof of the dangers to emerge – and neither should we.

Nine out of ten children now have a mobile phone by their eleventh birthday. Will we look back one day and be ashamed of the casual way we gave our children mobiles, just as nowadays our having given children candy cigarettes seems shocking?

Surely it is time the Government and phone industry started acknowledging what they have implicitly admitted for some time – that the safety of phone use by children is not assured – so they can start getting on with the job of protecting the next generation?

Vicky Fobel is a director at MobileWise.

Mobile phone health risks: the case for action to protect children can be downloaded at

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