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More research needed into mobile phone health risks, report warns

Perception that pollutants are poisons that quickly cause harm needs to be changed, as the bigger issue is of long-term risk, said Dame Sally Davies.

Further research is needed into the health risks of mobile phones, England’s top doctor has said, as she warned that people should turn off their devices at night.

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, warned the public is being exposed to a “daily cocktail” of pollution without realising, and much more needs to be done to examine the impact of air, light and noise on health.

She said pollution must be seen as a human health hazard as well as an environmental issue, warning that such pollutants are driving chronic sickness.

“There is increasing public and policy concern about the impact of computer/smartphone screen use, and ‘blue light’, upon human health,” her latest annual report said.

“Research is on-going and this is an important area of investigation, particularly given children’s use of social media via smartphones, increasing their exposure to potential risk.”

The report highlights the NHS as being a “significant polluter”, estimated to be the biggest user of single-use plastic bags in England and responsible for 5% of all road traffic at any one time.

As one of the world’s largest employers with more than a million staff, the NHS must lead the way in reducing such pollution, she said.

Dame Sally said the perception that pollutants are poisons that quickly cause harm needs to be changed, as the bigger issue is of them being long-term risk factors for a variety of diseases.

Many pollutants are risk factors for a range of non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and investigation is needed to assess the longer-term impacts of lower-level pollution exposure, she said.

There is increasing public and policy concern about the impact of computer/smartphone screen use, and ‘blue light’, upon human health Professor Dame Sally Davies

There is also growing evidence that pollution, notably air pollution, increases the risk of infectious disease.

Dame Sally said: “We all know the environmental impacts of pollution — but what is less recognised is the impact on health.

“With factors like air, light and noise – the public is exposed to a daily cocktail of pollutants. Some of these can be linked to chronic conditions like heart disease and asthma. This increases the risk for some of the most vulnerable members of our society and places a huge burden on our health service.

“Everybody has a role to play in cutting pollution, but the NHS has more than a million staff, accounts for one in 20 vehicles on the road and is a big user of single-use disposable plastics. Some trusts are already blazing a trail and I urge others to follow.”

She said many NHS trusts already have schemes in place to reduce pollutants and avoidable waste – and a handful are already emissions free.

Dame Sally commended the efforts of ambulance trusts to phase out diesel vehicles, singling out South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust for praise for its experimentation with photovoltaic cells to keep electrical equipment in ambulances powered while avoiding idling.

Her report lists a number of actions that the NHS and others can take to improve their pollution footprint, while she wants the Government to look at the human health impacts of chemicals.

She said local authorities are best placed to take action.

“While the national Government has to set the standards and the guidelines and give advice, pollution is a very local thing,” she added.

“One road – a main road – can have lots of pollution, and a road very close can have very little pollution.

“So the local authorities have the powers, they have the public health expertise, they really need to use those powers to make a difference for their local neighbourhood.”

Dame Sally said a world free of pollutants was “not do-able”.

“We have preservatives in food, we have volatile compounds from industrial solvents, we have cleaning products, we have well-established sources, like wood, building materials, carpets, paint, flooring… so we know that we are exposed throughout the day to a variety of chemicals,” she said.

“Of course we’re going to be exposed to pollutants, that’s part of everyday life. If we want to make economic progress, we have pollutants, the issue is what is a reasonably low risk level?

“And we don’t have enough evidence, and that’s why we’ve got to start to monitor much more carefully long term, so that we know and can advise people as we go forward and get more evidence.”

“People should turn off all iPads, iPhones and computers when they go to sleep,” she also told the Telegraph.

The report’s editor, Andrew Dalton, said: “Pollutants are a part of daily life but, as this report shows, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the threat they pose to health.

“Improving data on this is the best first step we can take to protect the public’s health as it will help us to identify any currently unknown future threats.

“In the meantime, it is encouraging to see many local authorities, hospitals and other organisations finding innovative ways to reduce the health impacts of pollution.”

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