Italian court acknowledges cell phone health hazard

The Supreme Court of Italy has found something that scientists have been unable to find since the introduction of the cell phone: a link to brain tumors.

cell phones

In a decision widely reported Friday, the justices upheld a lower court ruling that declared an Italian businessman could request worker's compensation based on a disability he claims was caused by the removal of a tumor linked to cell phone use required by his job.

The businessman, Innocente Marcolini, constantly used a cell phone six hours a day for 12 years before being disabled by the tumor he attributes to use of the devices. According to Marcolini's physicians, he suffered from a neurinoma affecting a cranial nerve. The condition required surgery that impaired his quality of life by partially paralyzing his face.

The Italian workers' compensation authority rejected Marcolini's benefit request because it said his disability wasn't related to his work. A lower Italian court rejected the authority's decision and the country's high court agreed with the lower court's ruling.

In reaching their decision in the Marcolini case, Italy's Supremes discounted a number of studies that found no link between cell phone use and brain tumors and relied heavily on Swedish research claiming such a link. That research—conducted from 2005-2009 by a team led by Lennart Hardell, a cancer specialist at the University Hospital in Orebro, Sweden—was given special weight by the court because it was independent and not co-financed by the mobile industry, as other studies on the subject were.

Research continues

It's not clear how the decision will play outside of Italy, but it may revive the controversy over the health hazards of cell phones that has been brewing for more than a decade. In 2001, for example, a tobacco-industry-type lawsuit was filed against more than a score of wireless companies alleging that the firms knew of health risks associated with mobile phones but did nothing to mitigate them.

smartphones

Three years later, the Institute of Environmental Medicine at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm released research finding that the risk of developing tumors known as acoustic neuromas almost doubled in people who had been using cell phones for at least ten years before diagnosis of the tumors.

In January 2005, the National Radiological Protection Board in the United Kingdom cautioned about exposing children to excessive cell phone use. While acknowledging that no conclusive evidence existed that mobile phones were harmful, the agency recommended caution be taken on cell phone use by children because they may be more vulnerable than adults to the potential health risks of the devices.

A mere seven months later, however, the UK's Institute of Cancer Research released a study that found there was no substantial risk of developing acoustic neuromas in the first decade after starting use of a cell phone. "Whether there are longer-term risks remains unknown," acknowledged the lead researcher in the study, Anthony Swerdlow.

In 2009, a yellow flag was raised once again about the health hazards of the devices. This time a group calling itself the International EMF Collaborative issued a 37-page report that predicted "a tsunami of brain tumors" caused by cell phone use. "[A]lthough it is too early to see that now since the tumors have a 30-year latency," observed the author of the report, Lloyd Morgan. "I pray I'm wrong but brace yourself."

The cell phone hazard controversy has continued. In 2010, a ten-year, $24.4 million study by Interphone found no increased risk for cell phone users of two types of brain tumors. While some of the data in that study showed an increased risk for some mobile users, the researchers said that the possibility of errors in that data prevented them from drawing any valid conclusions about it.

A year later, though, the World Health Organization classified the electromagnetic fields emitted by cell phones as a "possibly carcinogenic" agent. Other things placed in that category by the agency include coconut oil, DDT, gasoline exhaust, lead, talcum powder, titanium dioxide, and some types of HIV and HPV viruses.

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