Posted on behalf of Nicola Nosengo.
In ruling on a workplace compensation case, Italy’s highest civil court has stated that mobile phones can cause brain tumours. The ruling is being criticized by medical experts in Italy and abroad, who note that no scientific study has yet proven a clear causal link between the use of mobile phones and health risks. In a 12 October decision that was made public this week, the Labour Law section of Italy’s High Court ruled in favour of Innocente Marcolini, a former commerce manager in Brescia. Marcolini had developed a tumour of the trigeminal ganglion, near his left ear, and claimed it was a consequence of speaking on a mobile phone up to 6 hours a day for 12 years because his job demanded it. Although the tumour was successfully removed, Marcolini was left with severe problems (such as intense pain) and thus asked for compensation from INAIL, the Italian agency that insures work-related health risks. INAIL rejected his request, noting that there is not enough evidence linking mobile-phone use to brain tumours. In particular, it quoted conclusions from the World Health Organization (WHO), which in its literature states that “to date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use” (see ‘Mobile phones officially under suspicion’).
At first a civil court ruled against Marcolini, who appealed. The Appeal Court placed more weight on research done by Lennart Hardell’s group at the University of Örebro in Sweden, which years ago suggested that the use of mobile phones for more than ten years leads to increased risk for acoustic neuroma and glioma. The Appeal Court considered this work more “reliable” and more “independent” than large international studies such as the Interphone study (conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and funded jointly by the industry and the European Commission), as Hardell’s studies were not funded by mobile-phone manufacturers. The Interphone study, published in 2010, failed to provide solid evidence that mobile phones increased the risk of brain tumours, although it hinted at a slightly higher risk for ‘heavy’ users (see ‘No link found between mobile phones and cancer’).
A further appeal from INAIL brought the case in front of the High Court, which has confirmed the Appeal Court’s decision and ruled once again in favour of Marcolini. The sentence is now final. Italian consumer advocacy organizations, such as CODACONS, celebrated the ruling, which they say will create a precedent that allows consumers who use mobile phones for many hours a day to sue mobile-phone manufacturers if they develop a tumour.
But Michael Repacholi, former coordinator of the WHO’s Electromagnetic Fields Project, disagrees with the ruling and its motivations. “Funds [for the Interphone study] were provided to a committee of the International Union Against Cancer who acted as a firewall between the funders and sponsors so that the researchers had no contact with any of the sponsors,” he wrote in an e-mail to Nature. “Thus the industry contribution had absolutely no influence on the study outcome. It is unfortunate that the judge thought the Hardell study was the only independent one, when the WHO/IARC study was independent and was the largest study ever conducted on this topic”. Hardell could not be reached for comment.