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Mobile phone safety

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Mobile phone safety



 Introduction  

Since mobile phones started to become widely used in the 1990s, there have been some safety concerns regarding the potential effects of the radio waves they produce.

These radio waves are a type of low energy 'non-ionising' radiation – a type of radiation that also includes visible light, microwaves and infrared radiation – and concerns have been expressed that prolonged or frequent exposure to this radiation may increase a person's risk of health problems such as cancer.

Most current research suggests it is unlikely mobile phones or base stations increase the risk of health problems, but it is acknowledged this evidence is based on use of mobile phones over the last 20 years. There is still some uncertainty about possible health effects from using a phone for longer than this.

Therefore as a precautionary measure, you may wish to follow some simple recommendations for mobile phone safety to lower your exposure to radio waves if you have any concerns.

For now, using a mobile phone while driving is considered the biggest health risk posed by mobile phones. It's estimated that you are around four times more likely to have an accident when using a hand-held mobile phone, which is why it is now illegal to do so. It is also safer not to use a hands-free phone while driving.

 Mobile phone use in the UK 

Ofcom, the independent regulator for the communication industry, says around 94% of adults in the UK own or use a mobile phone.

Mobile phones are more than just a business tool. They are now a popular means of communication, a safety aid and an essential part of many people's lives.

There are around 54,000 mobile phone base stations in the UK according to figures from 2011. Base stations are transmitters (sometimes called masts) that use radio waves to communicate with mobile phones.

What research has been done into their safety?

There has been a huge amount of scientific research into health effects of mobile phone use since the 1990s.

Large reviews of published research by the Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR; part of Public Health England) and research carried out as part of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (MTHR) have not found convincing evidence that radio waves from mobile phones cause health problems.

However, further research is still needed as there is not currently enough evidence concerning any potential health impact from long-term exposure (using a mobile phone for more than 20 years).

 



 

 



So far, no convincing evidence has been found that radio waves from mobile phones cause health problems 

Risks of mobile phone use 

Research suggests it is unlikely mobile phones or base stations increase the risk of health problems, although there is greater uncertainty about potential risks from long-term use over decades.

Some of the main safety concerns associated with mobile phone use are discussed below.

Radio wave exposure

Radio waves received and sent by mobile phones transmit in all directions to find the nearest base station. This means that some of the radio waves will be directed at your body when you use a mobile phone.

Radio waves are absorbed into your body tissue as energy, which adds to the energy being produced by your body's metabolism.

Concerns have been raised that exposure to radio wave radiationmight cause a wide range of health problems, from cancer andinfertility to less specific unpleasant symptoms, but so far the only known effect of radio waves on the human body is a very small rise in temperature.

This effect of radio waves on your body is measured using specific absorption rates (SAR). SAR is a measure of the amount of energy absorbed. The units of measurement are watts per kilogram (W/kg) or milliwatts per gram (mW/g). The higher the SAR, the more energy your body is absorbing, and the higher the rise in temperature.

Some mobile phones have lower specific absorption rates (SARs) than others. You can obtain this information from your mobile phone manufacturer or retailer.

Current research shows radio waves from mobile phones can cause a very small rise in temperature (up to 0.2C). However, this does not pose a known risk to health and is comparable to natural increases in temperature, such as during exercise.

Unlike more powerful 'ionising radiation', which is associated with problems such as cancer, radio waves are not known to damage or alter the DNA in human cells.

Risks to children

Children might be more vulnerable to any health risks from the use of mobile phones because their body and nervous system are still developing.

However, research carried out to date has not found any clear evidence of a link between mobile phone use and childhood cancers such as leukaemia.

Nonetheless, it is recommended that children only use mobile phones for essential purposes and keep all calls short as a precaution.

Research and evidence

Continuing research is being carried out to see if there are any substantial health risks associated with mobile phone use and base station emissions.

In the UK, large reviews of published research by the Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR) and research carried out as part of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (MTHR) have investigated possible health risks.

The balance of evidence currently available does not demonstrate that radio waves from mobile phones cause health problems.

The balance of evidence also does not suggest there is a risk to people living or working near base stations. Base stations do not need planning permission before masts are erected. However, schools should regularly monitor the emissions of base stations situated inside or close to school grounds.

Every year, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) carries out an audit, which measures emissions from a random selection of base stations across the country. A report highlighting the findings of the audit is available on the Ofcom website.

If you think that a base station near you needs to be audited, you can apply for it to be considered by Ofcom.

Traffic accidents

It is estimated that you are four times more likely to have an accident if you are using a hand-held mobile phone while driving or riding a motorbike, which is why it has been illegal to do so in the UK since 2003.

Penalties for using a hand-held mobile phone while driving or riding a motorbike are currently three penalty points and a fine of £100, with a maximum fine of £1,000 (£2,500 for drivers of goods vehicles, buses or coaches) and a risk of being disqualified from driving if the case goes to court.

You can legally use hands-free phones when you’re driving or riding a motorbike, but it still carries risk and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. If the police think you’re distracted and not in control of your vehicle while using a hands-free set, you could still get stopped and penalised.

Interference with electrical equipment

There is a possibility that radio waves produced by mobile phones could interfere with important electrical equipment, such as pacemakers, monitors and machines in hospitals, and electrical systems on aeroplanes.

Different hospitals have different rules regarding mobile phone use. Therefore, always check with hospital staff before you use your phone.

If a hospital does not allow the use of mobile phones on their site, they will display posters around the building saying so. All patients, visitors and staff should follow the hospital's rules.

It is generally considered safe to use a mobile phone if you have a pacemaker, but as a precaution you should keep it away from your pacemaker and hold your phone to your right ear.

Recommendations for the safe use of mobile phones 

Current evidence suggests it is unlikely that mobile phones increase the risk of health problems. However, there are some things you can do to reduce the amount of radio wave radiation you're exposed to if you have any concerns.

Below are some measures you can take to lower your exposure to radio waves produced by mobile phones:


Only make short calls on your mobile phone, and do not use it more than necessary.

Children should only use mobile phones for essential purposes and keep all calls short.

Keep your mobile phone away from your body when it is in standby mode.

Only use your phone when the reception is strong (this is often indicated by bars of energy on your phone screen). Weak reception causes the phone to use more energy to communicate with the base station.

Use a hands-free kit to keep your phone as far away from your head as possible.


You may also want to consider the specific absorption rate (SAR) of a mobile phone before you buy it. This is how much radio wave energy is absorbed into the body from the mobile phone and it can vary between different types of phones. Mobile phone retailers have a responsibility to make this information available to you before you buy.

Driving

It is illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving or riding a motorbike because it can increase your chances of having an accident.

The Department for Transport recommends the following guidelines for safe use of mobile phones in cars:


Keep your mobile phone switched off when you are driving. You can use voicemail, a message service or call diversion to pick up your messages at the end of your journey.

If you need to use your mobile phone, stop in a safe place. Do not stop on the hard shoulder of a motorway unless it is an emergency.

Avoid using a hands-free device. These can be just as distracting as using the phone itself.


Frequently asked questions about mobile phone safety 

What research has been carried out on the health risks of mobile phones?

What research has been carried out in the UK?

What did the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (MTHR) find regarding the health risks of mobile phones?

Do mobiles affect brain function?

Do mobile phones and mobile phone masts cause unpleasant symptoms?

Are there biological reasons to believe that mobile phones might be harmful?

Are mobile phone masts dangerous?

What is currently considered the biggest risk associated with using mobile phones?

Do scientists know everything about mobile phones and health?

Can I trust the recommendations of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme?

What research has been carried out on the health risks of mobile phones?

Many studies are being carried out in Europe and elsewhere to investigate whether there are any links between mobile phones and various health problems. These include the COSMOS and INTERPHONE studies.

The COSMOS study

The COSMOS study involves scientists from the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and The Netherlands monitoring almost 300,000 mobile phone users in Europe to identify possible health problems linked to the use of mobile phones over a long period of time.

The UK part of the study, run by Imperial College London, will follow the health of more than 100,000 adult mobile phone users for 20 to 30 years.

Scientists will look at any changes in the frequency of specific symptoms over time, such as headaches and sleep disorders, as well as the risks of cancers, benign tumours and neurological and cerebrovascular disease.

The study in the UK is jointly funded by industry and government under the Research Initiative on Health and Mobile Telecommunications (RIHMT), and is managed through the Department of Health’s Policy Research Programme.

The INTERPHONE study

The INTERPHONE study (PDF, 176kb) was a multi-national study set up in 2000 involving research in 13 countries. The aim was to see whether mobile phone use is associated with an increased risk of head and neck tumours.

In May 2010 the results were released and concluded that there was no increased risk of tumours with mobile phone use. However, the study also concluded that the potential effect of long-term heavy use of mobile phones needed further investigation.

What research has been carried out in the UK?

In April 1999, Tessa Jowell, then minister for public health, asked Sir Walter Bodmer, the chairman of the National Radiological Protection Board, to set up an Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP). Jowell asked the IEGMP “to consider concerns about possible health effects from the use of mobile phones, base stations and transmitters”.

In 2000, the committee published the Stewart Report which led to the creation of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (MTHR). The MTHR has now released two reports, one in September 2007 and one in February 2014 (completed in 2012), which pulled together all the evidence gathered.

The Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation (AGNIR) has also published reviews of the potential health effects of radio waves, the most recent of which was published in 2012. You can read the 2012 report on the Public Health England (PHE) website (PDF, 3.4Mb).

What did the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (MTHR) find regarding the health risks of mobile phones?

The reports published by the MTHR did not find evidence of risks to health from the radio waves produced by mobile phones.

However, it was acknowledged that possible effects from long-term use could not yet be ruled out and further research was recommended.

You can read the two MTHR reports on the MTHR website

Do mobiles affect brain function?

The MTHR’s set of volunteer studies of brain function is one of the largest carried out anywhere. The studies found that exposure to radio frequency fields generated by mobile phones has no effect on brain function. They looked at factors such as memory and response times, and found no changes.

Do mobile phones and mobile phone masts cause unpleasant symptoms?

The MTHR’s research did not find any evidence to suggest some people suffer unpleasant symptoms caused by exposure to signals from mobile phones or masts. Its research programme included some of the largest and most robust studies of this question.

The MTHR recognised specific concerns about TETRA radios and base stations used by emergency services, but the report released in 2014 said there is currently no evidence of specific adverse effects related to exposure to TETRA signals.

Are there biological reasons to believe that mobile phones might be harmful?

The Stewart Report noted that a small number of experiments had suggested that radio waves from mobile phones cause biological effects in cells and animals. The MTHR conducted careful studies of two possible cellular effects identified in the Stewart Report: stress protein production and calcium signalling.

Stress proteins are produced when cells experience an increase in temperature. Previous research had found these proteins may be produced in nematode worms when exposed to mobile phone emissions thought to be too weak to result in significant temperature rises, which suggested radio waves may have a cellular effect unrelated to heating.

However, the studies supported by the MTHR showed the stress proteins were in fact produced as a result of a slight temperature rise (around 0.2C) caused by radio wave exposure and, since this was already a well documented effect that is considered harmless, the MTHR did not propose further research this area.

Calcium signals (produced by mammalian cells) are important in controlling various functions of the cells. Research published in 2010 found no evidence that exposure to radio waves had any effect on these signals.

Are mobile phone masts dangerous?

Levels of exposure to radio wave radiation from mobile phone masts (base stations) are generally much lower than from mobile phones and are well below international guidelines.

Audits of the amount of radiation produced by base stations in the UK have found that the radiation produced is generally less than 0.005% of the guideline values.

What is currently considered the biggest risk associated with using mobile phones?

The MTHR reports stated that the biggest known threat that mobile phones pose to health is from their use when driving, as using them at the wheel impairs driving performance and increases the risk of accidents.

There is no statistical evidence that mobiles are more of a distraction than a conversation with a passenger, but passengers are normally aware of traffic conditions and are therefore likely to stop talking in potentially dangerous situations.

Do scientists know everything about mobile phones and health?

No, and research is continuing. Mobile phones have only been widely used for about 20 years, so it is not possible to be so certain about the safety of long-term use.

More research on the effects of mobile phones on children is also needed, as they are already known to be more sensitive than adults to many environmental agents, such as lead pollution and sunlight. Government advice is to be on the safe side and limit mobile phone use by children.

Can I trust the recommendations of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme?

Although the programme was jointly funded by the UK government and the mobile phone industry, its management was overseen by an independent committee of scientists, including a representative of the World Health Organization, and the funders had no influence over the selection, interpretation or reporting of studies.