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Mobile phones and health, information and fear

Report on the spiked/O2 seminar.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Science & Tech

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On 29 November 2005, spiked and the mobile services provider O2 organised a seminar at London’s Commonwealth Club entitled ‘Mobile phones and health: What are we scared of?’. The seminar accompanied the recent spiked/O2 online debate on the same theme.

Five speakers gave introductions outlining their thoughts on the subject, followed by a debate chaired by spiked‘s commissioning editor Jennie Bristow. The audience included industry representatives, policymakers, academics, and spiked readers.

Richard Brown, group director of public affairs at O2, opened the discussion. For Brown, the purpose of the debate was to engage with the public and find out what concerns they had about mobile technology. On one hand, it was important to the success of the continued development of the technology that operators worked in partnership with communities. On the other hand, mobile phones now account for four to five per cent of Britain’s GDP, so the operators have a wider responsibility to make sure that networks worked well.

Brown also raised the thorny issue of the precautionary principle, and the problem of assessing risk, a theme echoed by Mike Dolan of the Mobile Operators Association. Dolan suggested that relations between operators and local communities were much improved in recent years and that the only real point of disagreement was on the science. The industry was keen to show that it was acting in a responsible manner, but exactly how they could do that was unclear when there is widespread uncertainty about the health risks.

Alan Meyer, legal director of Mast Action UK, was quick to state that he believed mobile phones were now an essential tool in modern society, even if he didn’t like using them himself. However, he felt there were problems with what he described as the ‘insensitive siting’ of phone masts. While mobile phones do not appear to be a health risk for most people, he said, there is a small proportion of society that is affected by them, illustrating his point with the case of an epileptic girl whose condition appeared to be worsened by a mast close to her home.

Jack Rowley from the GSM Association offered an international perspective. Where the UK differs from other countries, he argued, is in the extent to which government has engaged with concerns, and the one-sidedly negative presentation of risk in the media. While echoing the points made by Brown and Dolan on consultation, he argued that network development should not be held captive to precautionary concerns.

The precautionary principle was central to the points made by Sandy Starr from spiked. He noted how the confusion on mobile phones was starkly illustrated by interviews he conducted with MPs on the subject (See Mobile MPs: the health debate). While MPs recognised that there was little established risk in connection with phones, except in relation to driving, they agreed with Sir William Stewart that a precautionary response was necessary. For Starr, the confusion over risk was a product of applying the precautionary principle.

Many on the panel stated a desire to get away from a debate on the science of the impact of mobile phones upon health – which, as the spiked/O2 online debate has confirmed, tends to be highly polarised with little chance of immediate resolution. However, for some members of the audience, confusion over science was the primary concern. Jane Vincent from the University of Surrey asked where she might be able to find a definitive statement on the risks of mobile phones. An attempt to find an answer using Google had produced an overwhelming amount of material with little way of knowing what was reliable and what was not.

Richard Brown argued that in fact the O2 leaflet on mobile phones and health distributed at the meeting was a good statement of the facts, but asked ‘Is there in fact anyone that people would believe?’ Technology analyst Joe Kaplinsky was sceptical in response. The leaflet did provide useful information, argued Kaplinsky, but undermined itself by offering suggestions on how to reduce your exposure – suggesting, by implication, that there might some danger after all. However, as Jack Rowley later pointed out, the industry’s information on mobile phones and health is dependent upon the health authorities’ official message – so when the UK government and the World Health Organisation promote an ambivalence about mobile phone safety, industry is to an extent hamstrung in providing a clearer message.

Two attendees from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Health took issue with the claim that the debate around mobile phones and health was about the precautionary principle – the Stewart Committee, they argued, advocated a precautionary approach to mobile phone use.

A generalised cynicism towards statements from those in authority was a point discussed at some length, with a number of contributions pointing to the role of the BSE crisis. Having stated in good faith that there was no risk from BSE to humans, the appearance of variant-CJD had caused the UK government to backtrack on this statement. Even though the number of deaths has been very small, many noted that experts were now extremely reluctantly to give a definitive statement of safety for anything.

Professor John Adams from University College London noted the defensiveness of the medical profession, who he suggested ironically were suffering from Compulsive Risk Assessment Psychosis, or CRAP. With others, he pointed out that it is impossible to prove a negative, and therefore impossible to prove there is no risk from phones or masts. However, the assumption that there must be some kind of danger from phones was producing what he described as a ‘negative placebo’ effect.

Many of the speakers referred to the negative effects of fear in their summing-up. Sandy Starr noted that excessive caution could prevent innovation, while Jack Rowley noted the vast sums spent on phone research to date. As Richard Brown noted, almost every research project published in recent years calls for more research. Where do we draw the line?

Read on:

Mobile phones and health: What are we scared of?, spiked/O2 debate (archived)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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