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Does the radiation from mobile phones increase your chances of getting cancer?” is a question that has abounded since the earliest days of the technology, long before Apple and Google arrived on the scene. But an Italian court has just thrown its weight behind a man who argued that his benign brain tumor was caused by prolonged use of his mobile phone.

Fifty-seven-year-old Roberto Romeo told the court that he used a mobile phone for several hours a day at work over the course of 15 years, according to a report by Agence France-Presse (AFP). “I started to have the feeling of my right ear being blocked all the time, and the tumor was diagnosed in 2010,” he said. “Happily, it was benign, but I can no longer hear anything because they had to remove my acoustic nerve.”

The court, located in the northern Italian town of Ivrea, reached its verdict on April 11, but delayed making its decision public until yesterday. As a result of the ruling, Romeo has been awarded a state-funded pension of €500 per month from a national insurance scheme that covers accidents in the workplace. The award was based on a medical examination that concluded the plaintiff’s bodily function had been affected by 23 percent.

“For the first time in the world, a court has recognized a causal link between inappropriate use of a mobile phone and a brain tumor,” said Romeo’s lawyers, Stefano Bertone and Renato Ambrosio.

Though the verdict is being touted as potentially “landmark,” it does actually bear a striking resemblance to another case emanating from Italy five years ago. Back in 2012, the Italian Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that there was a causal link between a business executive’s tumor and his prolonged mobile phone use. Company director Innocenzo Marcolini developed a tumor in the left side of his head, having used a mobile phone against his left ear for up to six hours a day for 12 years.

Similar to Romeo, Marcolini’s tumor was apparently not cancerous, but it still required surgery that affected the quality of his life.

What we know

It’s worth noting here that there have been numerous studies into the impact of mobile phone radiation on human tissue over the years. The general weight of evidence so far has suggested that there is no direct link between mobile phone use and cancer. But the subject was elevated into the limelight back in 2011 when the World Health Organization (WHOreassessed its verdict on mobile phone radiation, noting that it is “possibly carcinogenic.” This effectively put mobile phones in the same category as some dry cleaning chemicals and pesticides, meaning that it could be damaging to human health but the experts aren’t sure.

Dr. Jonathan M. Samet, the physician and epidemiologist from the University of Southern California (USC) who led the WHO panel, said at the time that the decision to reclassify mobile phones as “possibly carcinogenic” was based on previous studies highlighting health-event patterns that may increase the risk of brain tumors among “heavy” mobile phone users.

Elsewhere, a 2010 study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found no causal relationship between prolonged mobile phone use and cancer, concurring with previous studies that found the overall rate of brain cancer has not risen in countries where use has long been prevalent — for example Sweden, where mobile phones have been fairly commonplace since the 1980s.

Mobile phones have been in widespread use in most Western countries for almost two decades now, and there has not been any rise in reported health conditions related to mobile phones, in terms of cancer or tumors, at least. The U.S. government has an official cancer information portal, with a fact sheet dedicated to mobile phone usage, where it says that “brain cancer incidence and mortality (death) rates have changed little in the past decade.”

But questions remain over prolonged and extensive use of mobile phones, as has been shown in both recent cases in the Italian courts. What we can perhaps say, with a reasonable degree of confidence, is that if there is a risk, it is relatively small. Professor Anthony Swerdlow, from the Institute of Cancer Research, said of the IARC’s study at the time:

This study cannot answer whether there are long-term risks beyond fifteen years, nor would it have been able to pick up much, much smaller risks. But if there was a large and immediate risk we would have seen it. Whether it is worth doing more research, that is a question for society. These are expensive studies, and there are many other things in the world that should be investigated. It is society which has to answer the question of how long you continue to investigate something that does not have a biological basis.

In short, the jury is still out on what relationship, if any, exists between mobile phone use and cancer. If you are worried, your best move might be keeping your mobile phone calls to a minimum.

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