While parents in Muswell Hill call for mobile phone masts to be banned from residential areas, SHYAMTARA NI FHOGHLU investigates how dangerous the radiation we are exposed to in order to use our phones actually is

Six months ago Sarah Purdy used her mobile phone without giving it a thought, and never wondered how she got such good reception in Muswell Hill.

Then in January this year Vodafone was granted planning permission to install up to six mobile phone antennae on the roof of the BT telephone exchange in Grand Avenue, just 260 metres away from where two of her children go to primary school.

And it wasn't until staff at Tetherdown Primary School told Ms Purdy about the plans, that she had any idea how many mobile phone masts there are in the area, so she started questioning the possible health risks they pose.

Now the thought that her own children could be in harm's way has motivated her to demand Haringey Council adopt a precautionary principle not to grant permission for masts near schools, hospitals or residential areas. She even wants the council to re-site existing masts.

But the parents' protest in Muswell Hill has highlighted a major conundrum: no one wants their children to be near mobile phone antennae, but realistically, how many of us would give up using our mobile phones?

Jane Frapwell, EMF (Electro-Magnetic Field) adviser for Vodafone, said mobile antennae operate at a very low power hundreds of times below international guidelines so there needs to be more of them to supply adequate coverage to ensure phone users get good reception.

She said: "In a city you're going to have more installations because of usage the more people who use mobile phones, the more capacity you need.

"The only health and safety issue is the area directly in front of the antenna. That area we would not want the public to have unrestricted access to. We do take people's concerns seriously. It really is a difficult balance how can we provide a service without affecting the community?"

According to estimates from the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) there are about 40,000 base stations, or masts, in the UK, and another 10,000 are expected with the advent of 3G services. It also states mobile phone usage has doubled from 25 million in 2000 to 50 million this year.

A quick search on the Office of Communications sitefinder website shows at least 25 base stations dotted around Muswell Hill, Highgate, Hornsey, Alexandra Palace and Crouch End. But it only shows mobile phone masts. There are also TETRA transmitters for the police radio system, and radio and TV transmitters in the area.

To give an idea of their strength, the TV transmitter at Crystal Palace which has been in operation since the 1930s is 4,500 kW. The digital radio transmitter at Alexandra Palace is 3.2 kW, and a standard mobile phone antenna is about 1.8 kW.

Dr Michael Clark, scientific spokesman for NRPB, made the analogy that radio and TV transmitters are like one big floodlight, whereas mobile phone masts are 60 watt bulbs dotted everywhere to get the same coverage.

The NRPB stated in its Mobile Phones and Health Report 2004 that the extensive use of mobile phones suggests that users do not in general judge them to present a significant risk. Nevertheless, since their introduction, there have been persisting concerns about the possible impact of mobile phone technologies on health'.

There are concerns that emissions from phones, and masts could affect brain function, particularly in children, and it has been linked with symptoms such as insomnia, dizziness, nausea, migraines, tumours and leukaemia.

Dr Clark said: "I just can't believe they are all caused by mobile phone masts. People are beginning to blame a multitude of symptoms on mobile phones."

But he said if mobile phones and masts caused just one or two of the symptoms, then research had to be done.

"We do feel that the issue of research is concentrated on the handset issue, because that's the greatest concentration. On the phone, the level of exposure is 10,000 times more than that of standing close to a mast. From the public concern point of view it's clearly the other way around."

One project underway is the development of a personal exposure meter, a device a person can wear which will measure emissions from radio signals.

Volunteers will be asked to wear the device for about a week and keep a diary of what they are doing and where they are, allowing researchers to measure exactly what they are being exposed to.

There is also a UK study investigating whether pulsed signals have more effect than continuous signals.

Another study is looking at whether living close to base stations affects cancer in children, and there are three studies to see if the use of mobile phones can affect the risk of developing leukaemia.

Dr Clark remains convinced that if there was a significant health risk from masts, it would have been very evident by now.

But Ms Purdy insisted: "They have the same property as all radiation, and other radiations cause cancer. These are the effects that need to be researched."

On Monday night, Ms Purdy gave a speech to Haringey's full council meeting outlining the concerns of the group at Muswell Hill.

A motion was put forward by the Liberal Democrats to change planning regulations regarding mobile phone antennae, and it will be debated at the next full council meeting in June.

The council also promised to hold an in depth review of mobile phone masts next year.

Vodafone has agreed not to activate the masts at the Grand Avenue site until a meeting is held with residents on April 6.