Buzzing About Safety

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For its part, Washington has begun a second look at its mostly laissez-faire stance toward the cell-phone industry. A General Accounting Office probe is under way, requested last year by two Democrats, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, that is examining such issues as the basis for the 1.6 W/kg SAR standard and the proper role of federal agencies in regulating safety. Says Markey: "It's time that significant public money be devoted to studying the possible health effects of cell-phone use."

And as is usual in controversial health issues these days, the lawyers may have the last say. Last month the Times of London reported that Peter Angelos, the managing partner of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team and a high-profile attorney who has won billions of dollars in damages from the tobacco and asbestos industries, would file suits against cell-phone makers and wireless-phone companies. Cell-phone stocks wobbled. Although Angelos' firm later said no filing was imminent, it has been carefully studying the issue. Angelos has also joined counsel for Baltimore neurologist Christopher Newman, who brought an $800 million suit against Motorola and several wireless carriers for allegedly causing the baseball-size brain cancer near his ear that has left him permanently disabled.

Each person, of course, must decide if precautions are in order. For every example like asbestosis, in which doctors discover the health risks years later, there is at least one Y2K, in which the fears of disaster turn out to be baseless. What is beyond doubt is that the ongoing debate is not going to stop tens of millions of Americans from yakking away on ever newer, sleeker cell phones.

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