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Be Wary Of Cell Phones, Doctor Urges
St. Petersburg Times
Journalist: Sara Fritz
March 27, 2002

Dr. George Carlo, a bearded, 48-year-old epidemiologist, sits inside a darkened room, his face slathered with pancaked makeup. A television camera focuses on his head and shoulders. Every few minutes, he hears a new voice asking him questions through his earpiece.

Over a period of three hours, Carlo answers questions from 18 local talk show hosts across the country. While he repeats the same phrases over and over, he never betrays any feelings of boredom.

Carlo's message is deceptively simple: Medical science is still grappling with the question of whether cell phones cause brain cancer.

"This is not a call for people to stop using cell phones," Carlo emphasizes. "It is a call for help -- so we can inform consumers about the risks of cell phones in the long run."

Carlo's media blitz is the culmination of a nearly 10-year odyssey in which he has gone from being called a lackey of the cellular telephone industry to being its worst enemy.

He was hired in 1993 to do research after the husband of a Florida woman who died of brain cancer sued the cell phone companies. He later had a falling out with industry officials when he refused to adhere to their point of view.

Nor is this the first time Carlo has successfully harnessed the media to his cause. He admits having worked closely with investigative reporters for ABC's 20/20 and other broadcast journalists who have helped to publicize his quarrel with the cell phone companies.

He does not contend there is undisputed proof that cell phones cause brain cancer, but accuses the industry of waging a well-financed public relations battle designed to create the false impression that scientists have found these ubiquitous instruments to be completely safe. He says the industry fears any information about health hazards would undermine cell phone sales.

"The science is at odds with the industry's "all-is-well' spin about cell phone safety," he said. "The cell phone industry is trying to win with marketing what it can't with science."

As part of the settlement of a class action lawsuit filed against the industry by cell phone users, Carlo has been directed by an Illinois judge to establish and publicize a registry. To help him do this, he has hired the Washington firm of the late Democratic political guru, Bob Squier, which arranged for him to get some face time on the local television talk shows.

Only two of the local TV personalities who interviewed Carlo bothered to challenge him, citing statements they had obtained from the official Web site of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. All the other interviewers failed to mention that his assertions are controversial.

Across town, at the CTIA headquarters, the industry's Washington representatives will barely acknowledge they even remember Carlo or know about his registry.

Travis Larson, CTIA spokesman, said his organization has not been informed of the purpose of Carlo's registry, and he added that registries of "self-reported" health information do not yield reliable data. He declined to express any opinion about Carlo himself.

Larson declared flatly that science has found "no adverse health effects" caused by cell phone usage. But, he added, the industry is involved in a long-term scientific study in cooperation with the Food and Drug Administration that can eventually settle the matter.

The nation's capital breeds many people like Carlo, who see themselves as Davids fighting the Goliaths of American industry. There are some whose emotional intensity, combined with questionable data, cause them to be dismissed as fanatics.

Despite the zeal with which Carlo attacks the cell phone industry, however, he is trained in medicine and law, and his arguments are consistent with the findings of at least three government agencies: the Food and Drug Administration, the National Cancer Institute and the General Accounting Office.

Carlo says many scientific studies, including some that he himself conducted in the mid 1990s with $28-million in funding from CTIA, have raised "red flags" that suggest the low-level radiation from cell phones could cause cancer in humans. Until scientists can prove or disprove these concerns, he argues, users should use headsets to keep the cell phone at least 6 inches away from their heads.

"The technology can be used safely; this is not an attack on the technology," he said. "This is an attack on stupidity."

By contrast, the CTIA says: "The current set of studies do not indicate adverse health risks from wireless phone signals." The organization is silent on the issue of whether headsets should be used.

Technically, both Carlo and CTIA are correct. Some studies have found evidence to suggest that cell phones might be unsafe, but there is no conclusive evidence that prove they are unsafe.

Referring to the connection between cancer and cell phone use, the National Cancer Institute says: "Although the majority of these studies have not supported any such association, scientists caution that more research needs to be done before conclusions can be drawn about the risk of cancer from cellular telephones."

The equivalent statement from the FDA says: "Available science does not allow us to conclude that mobile phones are absolutely safe, or that they are unsafe." And the GAO concluded: "The research to date does not show radio frequency energy emitted from mobile phones has harmful health effects, but there is not yet enough information to conclude that they pose no risk."

So even though Carlo and CTIA appear to be miles apart, their differences may be nothing more than a matter of emphasis.

Nevertheless, Carlo says that he has decided to pursue this cause because he fears that many consumers who have heard the statements made by the industry are unaware that there still is a potential for harm, particular for children who use cell phones.

In his television presentations, Carlo holds up a card that purports to illustrate how radiation penetrates the brain of an adult and a child. For adults, he says, it reaches no deeper than 6 inches. In children's heads, it is pervasive.

Carlo, who has a doctor's degree in pathology from the University of Buffalo Medical School and a law degree from George Washington University, was terrified in 1995 when he was sued along with many industry officials by a group of cell phone users who alleged that his research using consumer records had invaded their privacy. By that time, he had broken his ties with the industry and had no idea how he would defend himself.

But Carlo was able to turn the lawsuit to his advantage. Instead of fighting it, he offered to settle and persuaded the plaintiffs to allow him to use $250,000 of an insurance settlement to establish his registry. He was the only defendant who agreed to settle. Industry lawyers are still fighting the lawsuit in circuit court in Cook County, Ill.

Jim Baller, Carlo's attorney, says his client views the $250,000 as "seed money" he will use to build the registry and pursue a comprehensive, long-term epidemiological study of cell phone users. Four times a year, Carlo will tabulate and analyze the data that comes in on his registry.

On his Web site, Carlo says, "Registries are proven to provide an important initial glimpse into the effects of specific exposures in a population and can play a significant role in the overall scientific process."

He says he has patterned his registry on similar ones tracking cancer victims and sponsored by FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as those organized by pharmaceutical and chemical companies.

"It is time to do something, and by creating the Web site we've given consumers a positive action they can take."

When asked how he can be reached for additional information, he replies: "Call me on my cell phone."

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