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Mobile phone safety
 NHS Direct Online Health Encyclopaedia

Over 27 million people in the UK have or regularly use a mobile phone. Mobile phones are quickly becoming an essential business tool, a popular means of communication and a safety aid.

Over 30,000 mobile phone base stations are positioned around the UK. These are transmitters that use radio waves to communicate with mobile phone handsets. Radio waves are low energy radio frequency radiation waves that transmit through the antenna on a mobile phone to the base station and back again. Base stations are surrounded by electromagnetic fields, an energy force that is created when electricity is generated.

The use of radio waves and magnetic fields in relation to mobile phones and base stations has become a safety concern for some people and in 1999 the government commissioned a group of independent scientists to explore the possible health implications of mobile phone and base station use. The group, lead by Sir William Stewart, reported back in May 2000, with the following results (1):

There is no general risk to the health of people living near base stations, as radiation exposure is a fraction of current guidelines.
Radio waves can cause a change in brain activity under the current guideline levels, although it is not known why.
A cautionary approach to the use of mobile phones is recommended due to the lack of scientific knowledge about the subject presently available.
Mobile phone safety has also been brought to public attention by the former Government Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR), in relation to the safety implications of driving while using a mobile phone. It is now against the law to use a handheld mobile phone whilst driving.

The radio waves that are received and sent by mobile phones transmit in all directions, in order to find the nearest appropriate base station. This means that some of the radio waves will be directed at the head of the person using the phone. These waves are absorbed into the body tissue as energy, which can eventually cause a very small rise in temperature in the head.

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

Present research shows that the radio waves from mobile phones are sufficient to cause a rise in temperature of up to 0.1oc. This does not pose a known risk to health. Some mobile phones have better specific absorption rates (SARs) than others; you can find this information from your mobile phone manufacturer or retailer.

Children are thought to be at higher risk of health implications from the use of mobile phones. This is because their skulls and cells are still growing and tend to absorb radiation more easily.

There is no clear evidence that people living or working near base stations are at risk from the radiation. However, base stations must always receive planning permission before they are erected and schools should regularly monitor the emissions of base stations situated inside or very close to school grounds.

Around 80% of drivers have or regularly use a mobile phone. Surveys (2) suggest that mobile phones are a bigger distraction to drivers than eating, drinking and using an in-car stereo. Drivers who talk on their mobile phones are four times more likely to have an accident.

In a new regulation that came into force on 1 December 2003, it is a specific offence to use a hand-held phone, or similar device, when driving. The penalty is a 30 fixed penalty or up to 1,000 on conviction in court (2,500 for drivers of goods vehicles, buses or coaches). Drivers still risk prosecution (for failure to have proper control) if they use hands-free phones when driving.

You can minimise your exposure to radio waves:

Only make short calls on your mobile phone.
Children should only use mobile phones if absolutely necessary. Find out the relative specific absorption rate (SAR) before you buy a new mobile phone. This is how much radio wave energy is absorbed into the body from each type of mobile phone. Mobile phone retailers have a responsibility to make this information available to you before you buy. The lower the SAR the lower your exposure to radio waves.
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 mobile phone that has an external antenna. This keeps the radio waves as far away from your head as possible.
The DTLR recommends the following guidelines for safe use of mobile phones in cars:

Keep your mobile phone switched off when you are driving. If you need to use your mobile phone, stop in a safe place (not on a motorway or on a hard shoulder).
Hands-free devices are not considered to be safer as the driver is still distracted.

© Queen's Printer and Controller of HMSO, 2005

Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the controller of HMSO and the Queens Printer for Scotland.



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