Italy: Court blames tumor on cell phone
Stephanie M. Lee, San Francisco Chronicle, November 6, 2012To do his job, Innocenzo Marcolini chatted on his cell phone up to six hours daily, often holding the device in his left hand.
After a dozen years, the Italian businessman developed a noncancerous brain tumor near his left ear. Last month, in a ruling believed to be the first of its kind, Italy's top court sided with doctors who blamed the tumor on electromagnetic radiation from his phone.
The ruling, which entitles Marcolini to workers' compensation in the form of a disability pension, adds fuel to a long and furious debate over the potentially harmful health effects of cell phones. Some experts say it could open the door to similar legal claims, while others note that most research shows that the devices are not hazardous.
Concerns over cell-phone safety have particularly resonated in San Francisco, which passed a landmark ordinance - now on hold because of a legal challenge - to require that the products come with warnings.
Although Marcolini's tumor was noncancerous, it had reportedly been encroaching on his carotid artery, the major blood vessel responsible for transporting blood to the brain. Surgery removed it, but Marcolini testified that it left him with severe pain that requires daily painkillers.
Ruling disputedThe ruling by Italy's Supreme Court has stirred mixed reactions among medical experts, who disagree about the validity of the evidence that Marcolini's lawyers mounted to blame electromagnetic radiation.
Marcolini's lawyers cited a 2007 study from Sweden, which suggested that more than 10 years of cell phone use increases the risk of acoustic neuroma, a slow-growing noncancerous tumor of the nerve that connects the ear to the brain, and glioma, a rare type of brain cancer.
But the kind of tumor Marcolini had, a neurinoma, is associated with exposure to noisy environments, noted Joseph Wiemels, an associate professor in UCSF's Division of Cancer Epidemiology. Marcolini's illness may have in fact developed because of the phone's level of noise, not electromagnetic radiation, he said.
"The jury is still out on whether really heavy use of cell phones may increase risk of brain cancers," Wiemels said.
Dozens of smaller studies have found some correlation between cell phone use and brain tumors, as well as other health issues such as decreased sperm count. Restrictions on cell phones are in effect in some countries, such as France, which requires that the phones come with information about their radiation levels and be sold with a headset.
But most major medical groups, including the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, have said there is no conclusive evidence that wireless devices cause cancer.
The DNA factorIt is generally accepted that damage to DNA is necessary for cancer to develop, but the American Cancer Society points out on its website that the radiofrequency energy from phones isn't enough to cause DNA damage in cells or to heat body tissues.
In 2010, a study across 13 nations - one of the largest and longest on cell phone use - found no overall increased of brain tumors.
It did note that participants who used cell phones the most showed a higher risk of glioma. But the researchers said there was not enough information to prove that a strong link existed and believed that some participants may have exaggerated the extent of their cell phone use.
Last year, the World Health Organization declared cell phones "possibly carcinogenic," putting them in the same group as some dry cleaning chemicals and pesticides. The category, as the wireless industry noted, also includes pickled vegetables and coffee.
Still, experts recommend that heavy chatters use a corded headset or speakerphone just to be safe.
Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley, said cell phones have not been consistently used long enough for researchers to study their long-term health effects. But that doesn't mean they're safe, he said.
"There's certainly considerable evidence that's ... sufficient to warrant precautionary health warnings," he said.
Just the beginningThe ruling in Italy likely won't be the last of its kind, said Devra Davis, founder of the Environmental Health Trust.
"This decision is likely to set the stage for other determinations in other nations," she said.
Such a warning was scheduled to take effect in San Francisco in October 2011. Under a city ordinance, the first of its kind in the nation, retailers would be required to give each cell phone buyer a fact sheet including the World Health Organization's "possibly carcinogenic" categorization.
But the legislation was put on hold after a judge, ruling on a lawsuit by the industry trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association, concluded that parts of the ordinance went too far.
In September, a federal appeals court blocked enforcement of the ordinance.
The trade group did not return calls for this story.
Last month, the city attorney's office submitted a petition for a rehearing. If it is granted, the city would cite the ruling in Italy as "another example of why the courts should not be closing the door on these kinds of disclosures," said Vince Chhabria, deputy city attorney.
Ellen Marks hopes the city wins for the sake of people like her husband, Alan, who spent 20 years discussing his real estate business on his cell phone, which he held to the right side of his head. They believe it led to a malignant glioma above his right ear in 2008.
Marks, who now lives in Lafayette with her husband, pushed for the city's ordinance and co-founded with her son the California Brain Tumor Association, which lobbies for cell phone safety laws.
"My feeling is, having lived this ourselves, it's a horrible disease. There are so many people who have been affected by it," she said. "We need this."
For a discussion of the implications of this case for the U.S. ...
Italian Supreme Court Rules Cell Phones Can Cause Cancer
What are the implications of this ruling for the United States?
Joel Moskowitz, PRLog (Press Release) - Oct 19, 2012 -