TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Science and Society: Anatomy of a Techno-Myth --

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

Marcus Didius Falco (
Tue, 29 Mar 2005 01:06:27 -0500

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

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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