Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 39 - 59)




  39. Professor Clarke, welcome. We have known each other a long time. There was a time when you were Dr Clarke, but you are now Professor Clarke. Maybe some day I will catch you up—you never know. Welcome to the Committee this afternoon. May I ask you if we could ask Dr Stather to introduce himself.
  (Dr Stather) I am Deputy Director and I also have responsibility for work on non-ionising radiation in the organisation, as well as research on ionising radiation.

  40. Bearing in mind that we only have 45 minutes in total, would you like to give us two minutes' worth of what your organisation does before I ask you the first question.
  (Professor Clarke) Thank you for the opportunity to address members of your Committee this afternoon. NRPB was set up by the Radiological Protection Act of 1970. It is an independent arm's length body. We are not civil servants. Our Chairman and Board members are appointed by the Ministers of Health, and the staff are appointed by the Board. We are responsible for giving advice, undertaking research, and providing services to those who wish to avail themselves of our services, for which we charge money. So those are the three purposes: advice, research, and to provide services. We are about 300 members of staff distributed geographically between Chilton, outside Oxford, Leeds, and Glasgow for NRPB Scotland, to provide a geographical coverage for industry. Would that be enough?

  41. That is fine. Within that context, what is the formal role that your organisation has in advising on the safety of mobile phones, and which government departments do you advise?
  (Professor Clarke) The Act makes us responsible for advising all those with a need to have advice so, therefore, our recommendations would be made to whichever is the relevant government department or departments. We do not just advise one department. But the role in the Act does specifically ask us to give advice.

  42. Will that be all Departments of State throughout Whitehall, if that is appropriate?
  (Professor Clarke) Yes indeed, Chairman. It could be the Ministry of Defence, where we would have advised them on epidemiological studies on veterans from atomic bomb tests, for example. The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions on radon, for example. The departments in Scotland with regard to particles on Dounreay beaches. I could go on, Chairman.

  43. To what extent do government departments request your help, and to what extent are you proactive in giving it? Is the advice you give to government placed in the public domain? And then the third question, which is a bit impertinent. To what extent do you think Ministers and departmental officials are fully able to comprehend and understand the advice you give them?
  (Professor Clarke) We certainly want to be proactive, to answer the first part of your question. We believe it is partly our responsibility to try and anticipate problems that may arise in the future. A certain part of our underlying research programme must be on the basis that a particular issue may have more importance in the future. The overall programme of work is approved by our Board in an annual corporate plan and business plan, which are approved at the end of the day by the Minister of State for Public Health at our accountability review. But in the build-up to the production of that document, we hold discussions bilaterally and collectively with government departments and others with an interest in our programme. So we consult widely in the development of a programme. We are also extremely active internationally, particularly within Europe, so that we can be alert to research and problems that are identified elsewhere. Your "impertinent" question, Chairman, because we try and develop our programme of work with a dialogue with all the interested government departments, I hope that they are alert to the issues we think are important and we are alert to the issues which they think are important.
  (Dr Stather) I might just add, there is a Non-Ionising Radiation Inter-Departmental Liaison Group, which involves all government departments which have an interest in the area. This is a forum for discussing non-ionising issues generally.

  44. I did ask whether any or all of the advice you gave was put into the public domain.
  (Professor Clarke) Unless it is commercial in confidence, because we may give some advice for a company, in that case it would not be published. Anything else we publish in our documents of the NRPB, which you have probably seen, and all our publications are openly available.

  45. My final question, before we go to Dr Gibson: you talked about consulting widely with experts in a variety of fields at home and abroad. To what extent, particularly in this issue of mobile phones, do you consult with the manufacturers?
  (Professor Clarke) I think it is vital that we have a dialogue with the manufacturers, because we need to know how they see the technology developing so that we can address appropriate research issues. So we have a dialogue. We invite them to give seminars. We invite them to come and make presentations to Board staff, so that we hope that we understand the way things are developing.

Dr Gibson

  46. Are there any health risks associated with mobile phones, in your opinion?
  (Professor Clarke) The best advice that I can get from the Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation, which brings in experts from all over the country, the best advice that they give me and my Board at the moment is that there are no radiological effects from mobile phones, which operate within the guidelines we have established.

  47. So there are no grounds for changing those guidelines or having any health warnings on the phones? There is nothing at all, in your opinion? They are dead safe. You would encourage people to get one for Christmas?
  (Professor Clarke) I am not aware of any epidemiological or biological evidence of harm at levels of exposure which result from the use of mobile phones.

Dr Jones

  48. Your guideline is ten watts per kilogram.
  (Dr Stather) For partial body exposure. The important issue is that we have to look at the totality of evidence from experimental work, from epidemiology, and from that dosimetry work as well. Our advice is not based on the result of one single study from somewhere which may not be peer reviewed. We have to look at the broad spread of information which is available and from that we develop our advice. This has been built into our guidelines. From that totality of advice we believe that if mobile phones work within our guidelines in terms of exposure to people then they should not be a cause for concern. We have always coupled that advice with the view that we do need to do more specific research in terms of exposure to the specific frequencies that are now being emitted from mobile phones.

Dr Gibson

  49. Would you suspect from the nature of the radiation that there might be some biological damage or biochemical damage of some kind? You could never rule that out, could you?
  (Dr Stather) You could never rule it out but we believe on what we know about these radiations and the levels of exposure to people from the present generations of phone that it is heating that we should be concerned about. The phones that we are presently using give heating of just a fraction of a degree and that is within the normal daily variation of changes in temperature of the head anyway for a variety of different reasons, so there should be no cause for concern from the present level of exposure from phones.
  (Professor Clarke) I do not want to take up time but this is one of the reasons we need to understand how the technology is developing because if they open up new frequency bands and if there are different intensities, we need to know about that in advance so that we can address that well before anything could happen.

Mr Taylor

  50. You have touched on a very important point. We are about to move to the third generation mobile. I wonder whether you have had any discussion with the Department of Trade and Industry (which ultimately will auction this radio spectrum) or the manufacturers of third generation mobile on whether it has the same potential implications as 1800 megahertz?
  (Dr Stather) I mentioned this liaison group which actually met last Monday and one of the topics for discussion was how the next generation of phones is going to operate in this country. What we see in the future, at least in town areas, is more base stations operating probably at lower power and probably the mobile phones themselves will have lower power as well. That is the way things seem to be going but obviously we are talking about a generation of phones that will be three or four years away so it is early days for us to have too much to say in detail on that. Instead of seeing base stations a few kilometres apart we might see base stations a few hundred metres apart but operating at lower power.

  51. That is an important point you raise. The power is a factor in all of these calculations.
  (Dr Stather) I think what will happen is that you will get phones with a longer battery life.

Mrs Curtis-Thomas

  52. One of the issues that concerns us all as Members of Parliament is the siting of cable towers or telecommunication towers within our constituencies. It certainly constitutes a regular issue in my postbag. What research has been done to determine that there are no harmful effects as a consequence of those telecommunications masts and what research are you planning in future to cover any other concerns you may have about these structures?
  (Professor Clarke) If I give you a general answer first. We have made many measurements around these base stations and all measurements that we have made confirm that exposure levels are way, way, way below our exposure guidelines at any point that can be accessed by members of the public. You would have to be up in the air right in front of one of these antennae to be at all approaching our guidelines so measurements out in the field confirm very, very low levels of exposure. Nevertheless, because we wish to be careful about all this, we are undertaking biological research in vitro as well as behaviourial studies to see whether at these frequencies we can detect changes in behaviour of animals. So far any results that we have have failed to show any significant effect, any effect at all in fact, but I think it is important again that we continue to research this because of the changing technology.

Mr Beard

  53. Some people are buying shields and earpieces in an attempt to reduce their exposure to radiation to the head. Are these likely to be effective or necessary?
  (Professor Clarke) I think that sometimes, if I understand the physics of the telephones correctly, if you shield it and reduce its ability to communicate with the base station, it is liable to make up its own mind to increase its power level and you end up with the same exposure to the body that it was at before.

  54. Even if the telephone is some way away from the head?
  (Professor Clarke) I am not talking about the head now but if you put it somewhere else, on the waist. I am not talking about shields. If you put it on the waist obviously there is less heat deposition in the surface tissues of the head. But we did not think there was any danger in minor heating to superficial tissues of the head.

  55. So you have not introduced any guidelines on this of any kind?
  (Professor Clarke) No.

  56. Given that there are large variations in microwave exposure between different designs of telephone, would it be worth, do you believe, as a precaution looking to redesign them to reduce the exposure to the head?
  (Professor Clarke) From a radiological point of view I believe that all marketed telephones meet our exposure guidelines and as such there is no need for any further consideration.

  57. Not even as a precaution?
  (Professor Clarke) If we have our standards based on a deposition of heat, as long as you are below the threshold for heating. You are in a cliff edge situation and if you are below the bottom of the cliff there are not any effects.

Dr Jones

  58. Dr Preece has told us that there is a ten- to twenty-fold difference between the different designs of handsets in terms of exposure. Would it not be sensible to issue guidelines so that members of the public know that different designs have different exposures?
  (Professor Clarke) I think in a way that is a question for the manufacturers because from a radiological point of view there is no biological difference in the end result.

  59. Only because inadequate research has been done. Going back to the precautionary principle, surely consumers should know that they can reduce their exposure by different designs and they should be aware of this? Should not bodies like you be giving advice on this?
  (Dr Stather) Our concern is that our advice should be based on the best interpretation of the science that is available. That is basically what we give in our guidelines. If information is to be given on exposure from particular phones, I think it is up to the DTI, the Communications Agency and the manufacturers to look at that issue. It is probably not an issue for us to look at.

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