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Cancer fears still dog wireless industry

The threat of a barrage of high-profile lawsuits charging cell phone companies with causing brain cancer is emerging just as wireless companies gear up for next year's new subscriber push.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
The threat of a barrage of high-profile lawsuits charging cell phone companies with causing brain cancer is emerging just as wireless companies gear up for next year's new subscriber push.

see CNET report: Cell phone safety According to a report in The Times of London on Thursday, high-profile Baltimore attorney Peter Angelos' law firm is planning up to 10 suits against mobile phone carriers over the next year, asking for what could be billions of dollars in damages. Angelos is the attorney who led suits against tobacco companies that netted $4.2 billion in damages.

From a legal point of view, winning the cases will be an ambitious--and challenging--task. Unlike the case with tobacco, there is not a preponderance of scientific evidence showing that radiation from mobile phones is harmful. Several studies, performed by reputable researchers, have come down on both sides of the issue.

Nor would a legal argument showing that cell phones themselves may be responsible for any individual cancer be an easy one, given that toxins and radiation can come from other sources.

But if the suits do emerge, they could prove as damaging from a public relations point of view as from a legal perspective. The mobile phone industry is at a critical point in its development, depending on continued fast subscriber growth to help finance a leap into the next generation of technology. Any bad publicity that arrests customer acquisition could undermine even the biggest companies' plans.

For now, analysts are downplaying the effect on consumers' love affair with mobile phones, however, and note that throughout the tobacco litigation consumers continued to light up cigarettes.

"You still see an awful lot of people smoking," said Eddie Hold, a wireless industry analyst with research firm Current Analysis. "These fears have been floating around in Europe for a few years, and they have a much higher penetration rate than does the United States."

Angelos' suits, like other previous suits, would be based on the idea that the radiation from cell phones is directly responsible for causing brain cancer in cell phone users.

That idea has gained currency in many circles in recent years. Even Virgin Mobile chairman Richard Branson has said in the past that he accepts the possibility, which is one reason Virgin phones offer an earpiece option, analysts say.

Government agencies have been calling for research on the subject as far back as a U.S. General Accounting Office request in 1994. Numerous studies are under way now, including one that spans eight different countries. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Cellular Telephone Industry Association are working on their own research project.

The research that has come back has been contradictory. A few studies have shown some correlation between increased brain tumor incidence and cell phone use. But several recent studies have shown little or no correlation at all. All recognize the need for further research.

This lack of answers has led to a clouded legal landscape as well.

A 1995 lawsuit on the issue was dismissed by a Florida court without going to trial after a judge cited a lack of evidence showing that radiation was responsible for causing the plaintiff's cancer.

More recently, a Maryland doctor sued Motorola and several other companies in August, charging that cell phone use had given him a tumor.

Verizon Wireless, one of the companies identified as a probable lawsuit target by Angelos' firm, declined to comment on the issue.

"We're not aware of any pending litigation," spokeswoman Andrea Linskey said. The company maintains a Web page on the issue that quotes the recent FDA report.

"The available science does not allow us to conclude that mobile phones are absolutely safe, or that they are unsafe," the report said. "However, the available scientific evidence does not demonstrate any adverse health effects associated with the use of mobile phones."