UK mobile phones to carry health warnings

"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 UK, 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 though 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 a report published last May by the UK'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 phone 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 Monday.

Also adding fire to the debate are two articles published on Friday in The Lancet medial journal presenting conflicting views on the public safety of mobile phones. The Lancet articles, by Dr Kenneth Rothman, of Epidemiology Resources in Boston, Massachusetts, 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.

And while 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 non-thermal influences," especially in the case of children, putting them at increased risk of headaches, memory loss and sleeping disorders.

Furthermore, Hyland criticises 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 have confirmed they will be available before Christmas but we agree that first of all, the health and safety of children are a top priority."

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.

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