Leo Hickman

In just two years the number of people using cell phones across the globe has increased from one to two billion.

Among the concerns are constant exposure to the electromagnetic fields generated by cell phones and their base stationsDisposal of cell phones is also an issue

A REMARKABLE landmark went largely unnoticed earlier this month when the world's two billionth cell phone user was connected. There are now 1,000 new users per minute buying phones around the world, according to trade body the GSM Association. But what makes this landmark so striking is not just the sheer number of users around one third of the planet's population but that the one billion mark was only passed in 2004. Nokia, the world's largest handset manufacturer, predicts that by 2015, four billion people will be using a mobile telephone. It is unlikely that any other technology has ever penetrated the global market so fast in history.

But such a rapid take-up has left us hardly any time to fully digest the pros and cons of living in a world where we can rarely escape these devices. The positives are easy to identify: faster responses to emergencies; a more democratic and fluid flow of information, particularly in developing nations where growth is at its strongest; reduced pollution through a suppressed need to travel. However, the list of cited concerns is long almost too long to detail here.

Perhaps the most persistent are the health fears of being constantly exposed to the electromagnetic fields generated by cell phones and their base stations. For years now it seems we have lurched from the reassuring tones coming from the cell phone industry and numerous studies by governmental health bodies around the world, and the niggling uncertainties created by various scientific studies, such as one in 2004 by the Institute of Environmental Medicine at Sweden's Karolinska Institute that found that 10 years or more of cell phone use could increase the risk of acoustic neuroma, a rare and benign tumour of the cranial nerve that helps control hearing and balance. We are now at the point where the mainstream consensus is that the balance of evidence suggests cell phones are safe to use, but that "more research is needed" and, as a precaution, children should not be needlessly exposed to phones. Hardly the most reassuring of caveats. Hence the constant fight by many parents and campaign groups such as MastSanity.org to stop the siting of base stations near schools. The understandable fear, of course, is that the members of the public are acting as guinea pigs for the further research that most agree is still needed.

Children, a target

In fact, children seem to be a constant factor when listing many of the other concerns associated with cell phones. Despite the health advisories and the industry's vow not to target children under 16 in its advertising, under-10s are the fastest growing segment of the U.K. market, according to phone consultancy Mobile Youth. It has predicted that by the end of 2006 a third of five-to-nine-year-olds will have a phone. But what benefits does this growth really bring? Surely, this trend should be reversed. Children are five times more likely to be mugged for their phone as adults.

Ringtones, gaming, texting, and calls all add to ever increasing phone bills. And despite the industry's opt-in-only policy aimed at preventing the accidental targeting of children, they still have the means to access the many gambling and pornographic services now offered. More obliquely, perhaps, children are among the most endangered by those users who still persist selfishly to drive while holding a cell phone, despite it being outlawed in 2003.

The manufacture and disposal of cell phones, as with all electronica, has long been an issue. About five years ago, for example, there was a lot of fuss made about the use of "coltan" in cell phones. Columbite-tantalite is a heat-conducting mineral used in capacitors found in products including phones, games consoles, laptops and digital cameras. The problem is that large reserves of coltan are found in the east of war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. When the late-1990s dotcom boom caused prices to spike at $600 a kg, local warlords were accused of directly profiting and buying arms from its sale. Furthermore, the mining of coltan threatened the area's already endangered gorilla population. The international outcry led all the major phone manufacturers to issue assurances that they did not source their capacitors from suppliers using Congolese coltan.

In addition, the huge fall in coltan prices since has made other coltan-rich areas more attractive once more 50 per cent of all coltan is now mined in western Australia. But without a cast-iron certification scheme to guarantee these claims, there is sadly still no way for consumers to know they are not complicit in this trade.

The status culture of cell phones, spurred on by the pressure to upgrade models whenever we renew or change network contracts we change our phones every 24.2 months on average in the U.K. has led to a huge volume of redundant phones entering the waste stream. This urge to upgrade must be resisted if this waste is to be reduced. Thankfully, though, there have been efforts to address it with a number of recycling schemes, such as Fonebak.com and various charity drop-off points on the high street. There are even ways to reduce the blight of phone chargers being habitually left plugged in. For example, Solio.com produce solar-powered chargers and for the strong-wristed wind-up chargers are also available.

An interesting paradox: despite all the issues raised by the increased use of cell phones, the leading industry players particularly Vodafone remain among the most popular stocks with ethical investment funds.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006