Published October 04, 2002
A federal judge this week dismissed an $800 million lawsuit alleging cell phone use caused a Maryland physician's brain cancer.
Judge Catherine Blake ruled the plaintiff's scientific evidence wasn't sufficiently reliable or relevant.
If you worry that cell phone use might cause brain cancer, Judge Blake's ruling should ease your mind. It's safe to assume the plaintiff's lawyers -- the case was handled by the firm of infamous personal injury lawyer Peter Angelos -- presented the "best" possible case against cell phones.
Judge Blake screened the potential testimony to ensure the "reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid and whether that reasoning or methodology properly can be applied to the facts in issue."
Christopher Newman used a cell phone for an estimated 343 hours from October 1992 until the March 1998 diagnosis of his brain tumor. Newman claimed to hold the phone with his right hand next to his right ear, the area where the tumor developed.
Dr. Lennart Hardell, the only medical doctor offered to support the phone-cancer link, testified the tumor was caused by cell phone use. He relied on his own research -- including two published studies -- to support his testimony.
But Judge Blake observed Dr. Hardell's 1999 study reported no "overall increased risk for brain tumors associated with exposure to cellular phones" and his 2001 study, purporting to link cell phone use with cancer, was criticized by defense experts as a faulty effort to recast the 1999 study results.
Dr. Hardell's subsequent research -- not published as of the court hearing -- showed no overall statistically significant increased risk between cell phone use and brain cancer.
But Dr. Hardell nonetheless maintained the overall findings didn't matter because the cancer was only associated with ipsilateral phone use, in which the cancer develops on the same side of the head as the phone is held -- as in Newman's case.
Judge Blake dismissed this claim since Hardell also reported a statistical association between ipsilateral use of cordless phones and cancer, "even though there is otherwise no scientific claim that cordless phones cause brain cancer." A defense expert attributed Hardell's results concerning ipsilateral use to "recall bias" -- study subjects' inability to accurately recall which side of their heads phones were used.
In addition to point-by-point disassembly of Dr. Hardell's testimony, Judge Blake added, "Arrayed against Dr. Hardell's findings are the numerous studies published in peer reviewed journals and by international scientific and governmental bodies."
Another expert, Dr. Elihu Richter of Hebrew University, withdrew his opinion about a cell phone-cancer link before the hearing. During depositions, Dr. Richter conceded Newman's phone was within the parameters of studies reporting no cell phone-cancer link.
Without evidence from human studies, Newman's lawyers offered animal studies supposedly showing relevant biological effects of radiofrequency radiation -- the type of low-level radiation emitted by cell phones.
Judge Blake noted, however, "No peer-reviewed published study was identified [that] reported an increased risk of brain cancer from RFR at cell phone frequencies."
Newman's lawyers offered a study by the University of Washington's Dr. Henry Lai where rats exposed to RFR at a frequency of 2450 megahertz supposedly had more DNA strand breaks. DNA damage can result in a mutation that gives rise to a cancer cell.
Judge Blake found, however, Dr. Newman's cell phone frequency ranged from 824 to 848 megahertz, way below the frequency used in Lai's experiments.
Dr. Lai also acknowledged that RFR at cell phone levels is not a strong enough energy source to break chemical bonds and thereby cause DNA damage.
My favorite plaintiff's expert was Dr. Neil Cherry, a meteorologist called on to provide background testimony about RFR.
Dr. Cherry would have been more useful to the plaintiff's lawyers if he had forecast the storm of science that rained out the plaintiff's case.
Newman's lawsuit met a similar fate -- dismissal for lack of evidence -- as the 1993 cell phone lawsuit that was infamously announced on Larry King Live and that launched the cell phone scare.
It's comforting to know that while cell phone reception has improved, reception of cell phone junk science hasn't.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).