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17 September 2014
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Should I Worry About... Mobile Phones?

We've all seen the headlines about mobile phones. If you believed everything you read, you'd throw your mobile away immediately for fear of everything from cancer to infertility.

And that's before we even start to think about mobile phone base stations. Forty percent of people surveyed believed that masts can cause health problems.

So what's the truth? Should we worry about our mobile phones?

Can mobile phones cause cancer?

A vast amount of research has been done into mobile phone handsets. A few studies have claimed that some phones can cause higher rates of brain tumours. But don't throw your phone in the bin just yet.

Results which suggest that mobiles might damage health are actually rare. Those that do tend to have been done with old style analogue phones, which use a much stronger signal than modern phones. The general scientific opinion at the moment is that the benefits of mobile phones seem to outweigh any known dangers.

Erring on the side of caution

In the 1999, the government commissioned an independent group of experts to look into the potential risks of phones. The result was the Stewart Report, published in April 2000.

This report advised that gaps in our current knowledge mean we should take a "precautionary approach" to phone use. For adults this means using our phones for limited amounts of time. For children the advice was much stronger. The Stewart Report recommends that under-16s use their phones only for essential calls.

In 2000, the Department of Health published a leaflet summarising the recommendations from the Stewart report. This leaflet is supposed to be distributed by every mobile phone retailer. Sadly not all of the retailers are doing this. If you want to get a copy, you can insist on getting one from a shop. If you go into a mobile phone shop and ask for one, and they don't have any, email us and let us know.

What about base stations?

So, the jury is still out on mobile phone handsets. But what about mobile phone base stations? Is there any clearer evidence that they cause health problems?

Again there is conflicting information. According to the Stewart report, there is no evidence that there are any adverse health effects. However, many people up and down the country disagree.

Richard visited a 'sick-mast village', which has one of the highest concentration of masts in the country. The residents - with tin-foil sheilding in their houses - are living in fear. They are convinced that the masts are causing a host of symptoms. Are their problems caused by the masts, or could they be caused by worry?

The Should I Worry About team decided to carry out a test. We put ten students in a house for ten days and erected a mobile mast in the garden. We weren't entirely honest with them though; we told the students the mast was on at the start of the experiment and off at the end. In fact it was off at the start and on at the end. What's interesting is that the only time any of the students felt ill was when the mast was OFF but they thought it was ON.

Our small experiment suggests that people's fear of phone masts can be a factor in making them feel unwell. There are some people though who might be affected by phone masts and a large study is just beginning at Essex University to try to spot these hypersensitive people.

One thing we do know is that it helps if operators involve the public when erecting masts. In practice this doesn't always happen. However, operators have a duty to keep local communities informed, so if you see a mast appear suddenly in your area - make a fuss.

Should we all chuck our phones in the bin?

Probably not. The benefits do seem to outweigh any possible dangers, and there are things you can do to protect yourself from any possible health effects. So if you are worried, use a hands-free kit. When your signal is very low, switch your phone off because it's working extra hard at those times. And if you're under 16, stick to texting whenever you can.

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The Stewart Report
Read the Stewart report on mobile phones

Mobile phone base stations and health
Advice from the UK government

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Joint research projects funded by manufacturers of mobile phones

Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Study
Research on electromagnetic fields and health at Essex University

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