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Mobile Phones Safety Muddle
Mobile phone users face further anxiety and confusion today over the safety of hands-free kits.
An official Government report will give earpieces the all-clear and say they limit exposure to potentially dangerous radiation.
But last night other safety experts condemned the findings as 'misleading' and said they were based on the wrong tests.
The Consumers' Association said it stood by its shock report earlier this year that some kits appeared to increase the amount of radiation reaching the brain.
Millions of people bought the kits after alarming reports that electromagnetic radiation produced by the phones had been linked to conditions ranging from depression to hyperactivity and brain tumours.
After the Consumers' Association report, the Department of Trade & Industry ordered urgent tests on how much protection the earpieces provide.
The results are published today, in a report which says they 'offer substantial reductions in exposure compared to the normal use of a mobile phone'.
Trade Minister Patricia Hewitt declares in the report: 'This confirms that hands-free kits reduce exposure for mobile phone users. It is important that the public is provided with clear and unambiguous advice.'
But other experts say the situation is still far from clear and Miss Hewitt is 'foolish' to give such reassurance.
They say the Government tests, carried out by a firm called SAR test, concentrated on how much radiation was absorbed in the head when phones were used, known as the Specific Absorption Rate or SAR.
The Consumers' Association said last night: 'SAR is a measure of energy that is absorbed, but we measured emissions. There are also questions over the SAR tests, their value and the methods used. Different laboratories can get different results.'
The spokesman added: 'This research is far from definitive. We think it would be wrong to give the message that hands-free kits are safe.
'We have been talking to the Department of Trade and Industry and they know we are doing further tests. Unfortunately the release of this material at this stage has added to consumer confusion.'
Mobile phone expert Dr Roger Coghill agreed, warning: 'It would be foolish to argue that SAR is all we need to be concerned about.'
He said the test used by the Government could be measuring the wrong thing, because the radio frequency involved could be a far more important factor in potential damage than the amount of radiation absorbed by the phone user.
Dr Coghill said: 'When that frequency resonates with frequencies in the brain, the brain reacts violently, either by shutting down or, in the case of infants, increasing its activity.'
Experts warn that children may be particularly vulnerable to radiation from the phones.
The consumer group Power-Watch welcomed the publication of the Government research, but stressed: 'The jury is still out. This is one more bit of useful evidence, but it does not give us the whole picture and it would be wrong to claim it does.'
The public has already been bombarded with a string of mixed messages about the safety of mobile phones.
In May, an independent expert group on mobile phones and health, headed by the Government's former Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir William Stewart, called for a further investigation into the safe use of hands-free kits.
It warned that children should use mobile phones only in emergencies because of the risk from radiation.
Education Secretary David Blunkett later contacted schools urging head teachers to ban the use of mobiles by children except in genuine emergencies.
Today's DTI report will admit that some configurations of earpiece used were found to increase radiation exposure, although this was in the cheek rather than the brain or ear. But it said the amount involved was insignificant.
The report says: 'The conclusion from this study is that, in what would be considered their normal mode of use, personal hands-free kits offer very substantial reductions in their specific absorption ratio compared to the normal use of the phone against the head.'
It adds: 'We recommend that users should let the earpiece cable hang down naturally, keep the cable away from the phone's antenna and not place the phone directly against the body.'
The report says that all measurements taken on the phones themselves found that radiation levels were well within both British and international safety standards.