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Bad call


Late last month, while most of the country was still cleaning up from the holiday celebrations, the Financial Times carried an item on how Baltimore alpha lawyer Peter Angelos is allegedly planning to launch a number of lawsuits against cellular-phone companies--both manufacturers and service providers--on behalf of brain-tumor victims.

Obviously, this could turn out to be one of those high-profile suits the Orioles owner is famous for, such as his multibillion-dollar legal triumphs over the asbestos and tobacco industries. Angelos denied that he is planning to wage such suits, and I should hope so. An undertaking of this magnitude would just sully his name and make him look like an ambulance-chaser of the worst sort.

On the surface, taking on the cell-phone industry seems like just the thing to do--it's the people vs. the heartless multinational corporations all over again. Certainly, there's widespread suspicion that cell-phone use is hazardous to your health. It seems logical enough: If you hold a cheap plastic device that sends and receives frequency signals right up to your head and talk into it all day, why wouldn't those waves soak right through your skull case and fry your juicy brain matter like so much ground beef in a microwave--which, after all, operates on the same basic principle?

Because, as it turns out, people have pretty thick skulls. See, cell phones simply do not cause brain cancer, at least according to two new studies. OK, one was from the American Health Foundation, which is partially funded by the telecommunications industry. But the other study was conducted by the National Cancer Institute, researchers from which compared the cell-phone use of about 800 people who have benign or malignant brain tumors with about 800 tumorless people, and found no difference.

Even given these studies, and many earlier ones,that show no correlation between cell phones and brain cancer, disbelievers remain. The evidence is not conclusive, after all, and the samples are limited. How can we draw any real conclusions when the product in question has only been in wide use for the last 10 to 15 years?

But that's the nature of empirical pursuit. One of the chief limitations of the scientific method is that it can't prove a negative, that something definitively does not cause something else--and this is what fuels public paranoia. "The experiment does not exist, nor will it ever, that can unambiguously throw up zeros across the board simply because the phenomenon it has set out to study is nonexistent," Gary Taubes writes in the November/December 2000 issue of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology magazine Technology Review ("The Cell-Phone Scare"). "Rather, if done honestly, it will result in a range of values around zero, and the midpoint of this range is even likely to be above zero--a positive result."

Based on small samples and limited knowledge of what causes cancer in the first place, researchers looking at the effects of cell-phone radiation can only say that it apparently does not cause cancer. If they are to be scientifically rigorous, as Taubes points out, they can't rule it out entirely--just as if you buy a lottery ticket today you can't "rule out" that you'll win a million dollars this weekend. And that's all the doomsayers need to hear.

"For those who want to believe that the phenomenon is real, the existence of these positive results, however close to zero, will constitute all the evidence they need," Taubes writes. From such flimsy evidence, public-health panics unfold in an almost predictable fashion. The media run some scare stories, a few tragedy-of-the-week movies are made, vote-sensitive Congress critters pass legislation, and the offending product is taken off the shelf--pronto!

We saw this happen with saccharin, which proved to be safe years after it was banned from the marketplace, and with radon gas, which dozens of studies have shown has no effect whatsoever. It would be easy to spark a public panic over cell phones--and this is Peter Angelos' big temptation. Those phone companies and their wide profit margins are ripe for the picking. Take some studies that show nonzero effects, corner some federal agencies into admitting that they can't conclusively rule out a link to brain tumors, maybe trot some cancer patients around to radio and TV stations, and you have a groundswell of support.

It would be just the sort of big-money charge Angelos excels in. But unlike with asbestos and tobacco, the claims of cell-phone damage are still largely unfounded. If Angelos does choose to pursue this, he'd better have some evidence the medical community has somehow missed.

Joab Jackson writes for Baltimore City Paper, where this piece first


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