Architecture and Hardware

Staying Connected: Suit Yourself

As lawsuits increase, the mobile phone industry still won't admit its most important need—more research.
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If you are one of the 112 million Americans who have a cellular phone, you might not want to read this column.

You might want to go on talking on your mobile phone and leave it to the $50 billion cellular industry to research and report any health effects linked to mobile phone usage. You might want to just wait for the call, and until then, assume the phone you and nearly everyone around you is using is perfectly safe.

But keep in mind the industry has other things on its plate. The class action lawsuits are starting to pile up.

In August of this year, a 41-year-old Maryland neurologist, Christopher Newman, who claimed his brain tumor was caused by his frequent cell phone usage, served a $800 million suit against the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), Motorola, Verizon Communications, Bell Atlantic, and SBC Communications. A similar lawsuit had been filed almost a decade earlier by Floridian David Reynard, who claimed his wife’s brain tumor was caused by her cell phone use. Reynard’s claims, and his subsequent appearance on the "Larry King" show, brought the issue to the public.

While Reynard’s suit was eventually dismissed for lack of evidence, the industry responded to the public’s concern by setting up a $27-million, six-year research effort called Wireless Technology Research (WTR). Detractors soon accused WTR as being too cozy with industry instead of operating as the arms-length organization it had promised to be. WTR produced little research, and in the end left more questions than answers. Yet, paltry as it may be, WTR’s industry-funded efforts represent the staple of research done in this area in the U.S.

It’s the smell of industry foul play that has attracted big guns like Peter Angelos, a deep-pocketed attorney who cashed in big during the tobacco litigation. Angelos, who is representing Newman, the neurologist, is also busy with class action suits filed last May demanding retribution for users who have had to pay for headsets to protect themselves from radio frequency emission. Legal experts say Angelos’s strategy is the first step in cracking open the vaults of the deep-pocketed mobile phone industry.

Angelos has said he wouldn’t take on the industry unless he had a 90% chance of victory. Why does Angelos think he has such a good case?

For one, there are many reputable scientists who claim research shows a biological effect from mobile phone usage. Not only is there the much-publicized brain tumor link, but ailments such as Alzheimer’s, nerve damage, eye cancer, memory loss, and headaches have also been reportedly linked to mobile phone usage.

Second, some of these scientists say industry has not only dismissed research results, but downright suppressed them.

A former head of the CTIA’s research program charged the industry with ignoring and covering up research linking cell phone usage with rare tumors.

Third, while there is little research being conducted in the U.S., outside the country research is piling up, showing a correlation between the radio frequency emitted from a phone and absorbed by the human tissue, and health effects.

Fourth, there are many in the industry—employees, researchers, officials—that say the industry hasn’t done enough to protect the many customers using their products.

How will these lawsuits play out, if they do advance?

"A jury would want to know: Did the industry do enough to educate itself about the possible risks," says a legal source. "In a case where there is elevated risk [like brain tumors], there is an elevated duty on the part of the industry because the danger is that much higher."

And if you think the government agencies are watching the industry carefully, you’d be wrong. CTIA is the trade organization for the powerful cellular industry. Cellular service providers and manufacturers pay dues to the CTIA. In return, the CTIA acts collectively for the industry, and supports research efforts on the industry’s behalf, without the industry having to get its hands dirty.

But the CTIA has been widely criticized for dragging its feet on research. George Carlo, former head of the CTIA’s research program, WTR, recently turned his back on his meal ticket when he charged the industry with ignoring and covering up research linking cell phone usage with rare tumors. Carlo has even written a book about the industry’s subversive behavior in blocking the public’s knowledge of the status of mobile phone research.

Critics say governmental regulators—like the FCC and the FDA—have embraced a hands-off approach to industry. The FCC governs the telecom industry in the way of standards. While wireless manufacturers must ensure their phones only emit a certain level of radio frequency (a measurement called Specific Absorption Rate or SAR), in many cases, it’s left up to the manufacturers to do their own testing and reporting. The FDA is also not directly watching over the mobile phone industry, rather passing responsibility on to the FCC. But both agencies say their staffs are too small to have any real effect on what the powerhouse industry is doing.

"The FDA and the government’s role in all this is shameful beyond words," says Roy Beavers, a former Navy officer and operator of EMFguru.com, a watchdog, grassroots Web site that chronicles the events in the utilities and the wireless industries that effect consumer health. FDA’s director Russell Owen responds: "Our work shows that we have exerted our best efforts to do what we can to obtain the best scientific data for the continued assessment of the possibility of adverse health effects from wireless phones and [RF] exposures."

In response to public complaint, the CTIA and the FDA formed a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA). But for all the press releases and grand hoopla surrounding the program, it turns out that it will, again, be the CTIA that funds the research done (likely spending about $1 million). And it will be the industry that chooses which research efforts to green light.

There is no doubt the industry/government relationship is too close for comfort. So much so that Sen. Joseph Lieberman requested the U.S. General Accounting Office audit the status of research into health links to cell phone usage. The report, which was made public in May of this year, states "although most of the … studies conducted on the issue have found no adverse health effects, the findings of some studies have raised questions about about possible cancer and noncancer effects that require further investigation." It also says the U.S. has been responsible for a very small portion of this body of research. Why? Ask the lobbyists and the cellular industry.

It will take time and money to illustrate what biological effect, if any, talking on that nifty little cell phone will have. In the meantime, service providers offer "buckets" of minute plans and more subscribers—including kids—sign up for service every day.

The next time your pocket-sized mobile phone rings, you might want to know one more thing before you answer the call: that you are inadvertently participating in what Leif Salford, a neurosurgery professor at Sweden’s University of Lund has been quoted as calling "the biggest biological experiment in history."

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