Ever since a Florida man went on Larry King's cable talk show eight years ago to charge that his wife's cellular telephone caused a fatal brain tumor, scientists have been scrambling to answer questions about the safety of the popular communication devices.
The lawsuit brought by the Florida widower against his wife's cell-phone maker was dismissed for lack of evidence a few years later. But the questions have persisted, even as the number of Americans using the convenient gadgets topped 100 million.
Now there is a renewed legal attack on the $45 billion wireless communications industry, and a Maryland man is at the center of it. Christopher J. Newman, a 41-year-old neurologist from Jarrettsville, blames his six-year cell-phone habit for the malignancy in his brain that threatens to kill him.
He and his wife, Mary Frances, have filed a lawsuit seeking more than $1 billion from Motorola Inc., his cell-phone maker, several other telecommunications companies and two industry associations. The lawsuit contends that they knew or should have known their products can cause cancer.
"I don't want other people to experience what I've experienced, other mothers and fathers to go through what I've gone through," Newman said in a recent interview at his home.
After repeated brain surgeries, chemotherapy and a nearly fatal infection, he said he is unable to work or drive and is haunted by the likelihood that he won't live to see his three children - ages 7 to 12 - graduate from high school.
The Newmans' lawsuit, initially filed in August, is pending in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Joanne M. Suder, one of their lawyers, said she might file a dozen lawsuits around the country on behalf of other long-term cell-phone users who have brain cancer.
Team includes Angelos
Though her firm has just four attorneys, she has teamed with other trial lawyers, including Baltimore's Peter G. Angelos, who has made a fortune by taking on such big adversaries as the asbestos and tobacco industries.
Cell phones are in the same league, Suder contends, as other products that have been pulled from the market over safety concerns, including shredding sport utility tires, flammable children's pajamas and silicon breast implants
"No one wants to discontinue communication, but we've got to stop in our tracks until it's safe," Suder said.
Cell-phone makers, however, insist their products are safe. They point to recent studies of brain cancer patients that failed to detect any link with cell-phone use. The latest, published last week, found no higher rates of brain or other cancers among more than 400,000 mobile phone users in Denmark.
"There is no science to suggest there are any adverse health effects," said Jo-Anne Basile, vice president for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, an industry group based in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration - one of the federal government's watchdogs over product safety - takes a more equivocal view. While the agency sees no scientific evidence of health problems in humans, it notes that a few studies have found increased cancer in laboratory rats and mice exposed to mobile-phone radiation.
Unable to conclude that cell phones are either unsafe or absolutely safe, the FDA has called for more research. Last summer, the agency agreed to cooperate with the wireless industry on $10 million worth of new studies.
Like televisions, microwave ovens and a host of other electric appliances, cell phones give off electromagnetic radiation through their antennas. The health questions arise because most users hold their phones to their ears, putting these transmitters of energy within an inch or so of their heads.
The strength of the signal emitted varies by the phones' distance from a base station, but the radiation is not powerful enough to burn or even heat a user's skin or internal organs.
Over the past few years, however, several laboratory studies have suggested that mobile-phone-type radiation might interfere with normal biological processes, even without heating tissue.
Laboratory experiments exposing mice and rats to cell-phone radiation have produced conflicting results, though a few studies have suggested it could accelerate the development of tumors.
Another set of experiments found evidence of genetic abnormalities in human blood, which might be a precursor to the development of cancer.
Studies called flawed
Industry officials say the laboratory studies finding effects in animals and genetic material were flawed and have not been verified by other researchers repeating the experiments.
"We're a long way from going from `a' to `z' on this," said the wireless association's Basile.
That's also true of the studies looking for cancer among people who use cell phones. The most recent, published last week in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found no increase in brain or other tumors among more than 400,000 Danish users of the devices.