Science and Society: Anatomy of a Techno-Myth --

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The debate over the safety of mobile phones has little to do with science.

DO MOBILE phones cause explosions at petrol stations? That question has just been exhaustively answered by Adam Burgess, a researcher at the University of Kent, in England. Oddly, however, Dr Burgess is not a physicist, but a sociologist. For the concern rests not on scientific evidence of any danger, but is instead the result of sociological factors: it is an urban myth, supported and propagated by official sources, but no less a myth for that. Dr Burgess presented his findings this week at the annual conference of the British Sociological Association.

Mobile phones started to become widespread in the late 1980s, when the oil industry was in the middle of a concerted safety drive, Dr Burgess notes. This was, in large part, a response to the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, when 167 people died in an explosion on an oil platform off the Scottish coast. The safety drive did not apply merely to offshore operations: employees at some British oil-company offices are now required to use handrails while walking up and down stairs, for example. So nobody questioned the precautionary ban on the use of mobile phones at petrol stations. The worry was that an electrical spark might ignite explosive fumes.

By the late 1990s, however, phonemakers having conducted their own research realised that there was no danger of phones causing explosions since they could not generate the required sparks. But it was too late. The myth had taken hold.

One problem, says Dr Burgess, is that the number of petrol-station fires increased in the late 1990s, just as mobile phones were proliferating. Richard Coates, BP's fire-safety adviser, investigated many of the 243 such fires that occurred around the world between 1993 and 2004. He concluded that most were indeed caused by sparks igniting petrol vapour, but the sparks themselves were the result of static electricity, not electrical equipment. Most drivers will have experienced a mild electric shock when climbing out of their vehicles. It is caused by friction between driver and seat, with the result that both end up electrically charged. When the driver touches the metal frame of the vehicle, the result is sometimes a spark. This seems to have become more common as plastic car interiors, synthetic garments and rubber-soled shoes have proliferated.

A further complication was the rise of the internet, where hoax memos, many claiming to originate from oil companies, warned of the danger of using mobile phones in petrol stations. One e-mail contained fictitious examples of such explosions said to have happened in Indonesia and Australia. Another, supposedly sent out by Shell, found its way on to an internal website at Exxon, says Dr. Burgess, where it was treated as authoritative by employees. Such memos generally explain static fires quite accurately, but mistakenly attribute them to mobile phones. Official denials, says Dr Burgess, simply inflame the suspicions of conspiracy theorists.

Despite the lack of evidence that mobile phones can cause explosions, bans remain in place around the world, though the rules vary widely. Warning signs abound in Britain, America, Canada and Australia. The city of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, introduced a ban last year. And, earlier this month, a member of Connecticut's senate proposed making the use of mobile phones in petrol stations in that state punishable by a $250 fine.

For Dr Burgess, such concerns are part of a broader pattern of unease about mobile phones. There is a curious discrepancy, he notes, between the way that such phones have become indispensable, and the fact that they are also vaguely considered to be dangerous. This is particularly noticeable in Britain. The country that led the way in banning mobile phones at petrol stations is also the country that has taken the strongest line on the safety of mobile-phone use by children. In January, Sir William Stewart, the government's expert on the subject, warned that while there is no evidence that mobile phones are unsafe, as a precautionary measure children should use them only when absolutely necessary. The safety of mobile phones would appear to be not so much the province of the hard science of physics, as of the soft science of sociology.

Copyright 2005 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group.

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