Mobile phones: Safety issues - Myth or reality?

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SteveD | 08:26 Tue 23rd May 2006 | History
12 Answers

1. Aircraft
The use of mobile phones is not permitted on commercial flights as they can interfere with the aircraft's navigation systems. Has this been proved?

Every day, there must be tens of thousands of air passengers worldwide who are carrying a mobile phone. Out of these, there are surely many who forget to switch off their phone. If one of these phones was used or if it received an incoming call, what is the risk?

2. Hospitals
The use of mobile phones is banned in hospitals as they can interfere with (for example) patients' monitoring systems. Has this been proved?

I have seen hospital staff using mobile phones. What is the risk?

3. Petrol stations
There are signs in some filling stations indicating that mobile phones should not be used on the forecourt. Presumably this is because of explosion risk.

Has it ever been proved that a forecourt fire was the result of somebody using a mobile phone?

Could someone post any links to sites discussing the above?


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Don't know about the hospital question but the other two have been tackled on the Discovery programme called "Mythbusters".

I haven't seen the aircraft one yet but they showed that the petrol station scenario isn't feasible - it's more to do with static. Apparently, US petrol stations have a feature where you can leave the nozzle in your tank and you can get back in to your car. The 'fires' result when someone wearing nylon doesn't ground themselves before touching the nozzle again.

Interesting programme - worth a watch.

Hi Steve,
With regard to petrol stations it is a myth. There was a BBC programme recently where this question came up and it stems from the earliest mobiles which were very bulky, and could possibly, although never proven, cause a spark which might just possibly ignite the petrol fumes.
well, on 9/11, it looks as if everyone was on their mobiles all the time - that's how the passengers in the 4th plane realised what was going on and fought back. Of course the plane did crash, so I suppose strictly speaking this doesn't prove anything, but it doesn't appear that the phones were part of the problem.

Much of the evidence about the threat of interference to flight equipment is circumstantial, but given the fact it's usually a long way back to the ground, no-one in the air industry really wants to take that chance. Click here, here and here for more info

There is some evidence that mobile phones have the potential to interfere with some equipment in hospitals, but only in close proximity (6-10 feet). However, another reason for not using phones in hospitals is to avoid annoying & upsetting hospital patients that need rest & quiet. Click here, here and here for more info

The petrol station one is a complete myth. Click here for more info

As to aircraft, I'm sure I've read somewhere that it is being considered to relax the total ban, and allow mobile use once the aircraft is cruising. I can't remember whether this was in the US or UK.

I have personal experience of the petrol station one

I had just finished paying when my phone rang as I walked to the car. I answered and the dozy bint behind the counter came running out screaming at the top of her voice at me. At first I thought something really bad had happenned but when I realised she was telling me to stop using my phone I just stepped a couple of yards to the left, took my phone away from My ear and said "I'm on the pavement". Her face was a picture!

Illegal? my 4rse.

The reason for Aircraft and Hospitals ( and many Telephone Exchanges) banning Mobiles is due to RF (Radio Frequency) Pickup. The wiring in the Aircraft or Hospital equipment acts a miniature aerials and picks up the RF transmission from the mobile phone and interferes with the data being passed along the wiring causing the data to be illegible. The strength of this interference will depend on the Frequency the mobile is transmitting on and the physical length of the wiring. Any well designed equipment will be well screened against RF Pick up but it could still be susceptible if the mobile is physically near the equipment. I.E. there is a very small risk of interference. You may well have experience RF pickup when talking on a normal telephone land line, just before your mobile rings you hear some "blipping noises" on you land line handset .
I do remember reading of an Aircraft in Japan starting its landing approach that lost temporary control of it's Auto-Stabilisation system which was later blamed on a passenger switching on his mobile.

Petrol stations asking for phones to be switched off is due to again a very slight risk of the Mobile's RF field causing a "potential difference" which then discharges to earth (same as a static spark). The spark in turn ignites the petrol fumes. I think this is more of a precaution against legal action rather than a great risks as it is not policed very rigorously by the Petrol station companies


I challenge you to give one literature reference to this actually happening.

I fly every week with work, and accidental research on this subject covers the following (a) phone accidently left on, and we all still successfully reached destination (b) phone signal is apparently lost at circa 8000 feet and (c) the risk is apparently when the phone is actually polling for a signal.

I fly mainly with British airlines, and they demand that your phone is off from the minute they close the doors to the moment they open them again. I have also flown with American airlines and them seem to allow you to have your phone on when taxiing around on the ground.

I also have a friend who works for a major oil company (named after something commonly found on a beach!!) and he says that there is no risk from phones on forecourts. I have also seen videos of people smoking when filling cars up with petrol, and they have survived. Which I would suspect was a slightly higher risk than having a mobile phone on!!

I suspect that the risk is a little bit over exaggrated!!

On the 29th April 2004, a Super Puma L2 (helicopter) was returning from offshore. As it was on the approach to it�s destination airport, a passenger used his mobile �phone. This resulted in the loss of all flight and navigation information on both pilot�s Integrated Flight Display System screens lasting one second during this critical phase of flight.
It also resulted in the loss of flight data into the aircraft�s Health and Usage Monitoring System. This is NOT an isolated occurrence; another incident has been reported on an S76 helicopter - a mobile �phone (not switched �OFF�) was placed in baggage and duly loaded into the hold. This resulted in a false engine fire warning during the flight.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority carried out tests on two parked aircraft to find out the potential dangers of mobile �phone use. It found evidence that they produced interference levels which could disrupt aircraft systems. Faults attributed to mobile �phones include false cockpit warnings, malfunctioning of aircraft systems, interference in pilot�s headsets - all distracting the crew from their primary task.

In June 2003, a man was sentenced to 12 months in prison after being found guilty of �recklessly and negligently� endangering a British Airways flight. The jury heard that the man, an oil worker, had repeatedly refused to switch off his �phone after being spotted with it on a Boeing 737.

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