A federal judge in Baltimore began an unprecedented exploration yesterday of the scientific evidence surrounding the high-stakes question of whether wireless telephones can cause cancer.
The weeklong evidence hearing before U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake will mark the most detailed public review of the competing scientific research on a possible link between cell phones and cancer. It also could help determine the fate of future lawsuits against the nation's $45 billion wireless communications industry.
Blake must determine what scientific evidence or expert testimony should be allowed at trial in the $800 million lawsuit against the mobile phone industry brought by Dr. Christopher J. Newman, 42, a Jarrettsville neurologist who claims he developed a brain tumor after using one of the devices during much of the 1990s.
The cellular phone industry, consumer groups and product-liability lawyers are closely watching this week's events, because the outcome could determine whether the industry will face a wave of new lawsuits or can claim a decisive victory and bolster long-standing assertions that cell phones are safe. Dozens of lawyers filled Blake's courtroom yesterday and are expected to be on hand throughout the five-day hearing.
Attorneys representing the cell phone makers told Blake in opening statements that the evidence Newman wants introduced at trial is based on "bad science" that does not hold up under close review.
"There's no science that demonstrates, even at a higher use rate ... that cell phones cause brain damage," said Garrett B. Johnson, an attorney representing Motorola Inc. "It just doesn't exist."
But one of the first scientists to testify for Newman suggested otherwise. Henry Lai, a bioengineer with the University of Washington in Seattle, said that his studies of brain cells from rats exposed to radiation -- even at lower levels than emitted by wireless phones -- led him to determine that such radiation can cause DNA cell damage, possibly leading to cancer.
Newman is represented by Peter G. Angelos' law firm, which won millions suing asbestos makers and tobacco companies, but his case faces obstacles. The wireless phone industry has not lost any of the handful of lawsuits brought in the past decade by plaintiffs claiming a link between cancer and cell phone use.
Federal regulators, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have said they do not consider cell phones to be a health threat, but also caution that more research is needed.
Blake has handed Newman's team a series of setbacks, excusing several of the wireless companies named in the original lawsuit and dismissing many of the allegations against the remaining defendants.