Dr. David Perlmutter doesn’t want to say, “I told you so.”
But somehow, he’s almost compelled to in the wake of the World Health Organization announcement last week that cell phone use possibly causes cancer in humans.
Perlmutter, a Naples neurologist, was among the earliest, if not the first, doctor to sound a warning about the potential dangers of cell phones two decades ago.
The coincidence of two patients in the same week with identical brain tumors and both carrying the bulky cell phones of 1991 led Perlmutter to suspect that there might be something unhealthy about the radiation the devices emit, he recalled. “There tumors were located exactly where the base of the antenna were,” Perlmutter said.
He began questioning the safety of and the testing that went into the new technology.
He wrote a book called, “LifeGuide,” that included a chapter cautioning against overuse of cell phones.
He appeared on the ABC News program 20/20 in 1992, taking his concerns to a national audience.
As is evidenced by the cell phone conversations taking place today in every line, on every sidewalk and at every intersection, that audience didn’t necessarily take those concerns to heart. WHO estimates there are currently five billion mobile phone subscriptions globally.
Nor did he win many friends. People like cell phones and didn’t want to hear theories against them. The phone companies sponsored research to counteract what Perlmutter was saying.
The WHO finding, while not definitively declaring a cell phone-cancer risk, places cell phone use in a category with substances such as lead, engine exhaust and chloroform.
Dr. Jonathan Samet, head of the WHO group studying radiation from cell phones, said, “The evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support ... the conclusion that there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk.”
Part of the problem, Perlmutter says, is that cancer research takes years to develop. His initial warnings were met with skepticism and even hostility. Now, evidence supporting his claims is starting to mount. “With time those with significant (cell phone) exposure ... do develop a significant increase in risk,” he said.
One set of data considered by the WHO panel indicated those using a cell phone for 30 minutes a day over a 10-year period saw a 40 percent increase in risk for glioma, the most common form of brain cancer.
The cell phone industry points out that WHO did not conduct fresh research, only compiled and reviewed work already done. A comprehensive study using a control group hasn’t proved a link to cancer, the argument goes.
Says Perlmutter, “I would argue the retrospective studies are valuable. It’s not like you have a double-blind trial on jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.”
Perlmutter says he’s not anti cell phone. “I have a cell phone. I rarely use it,” he said, adding, “I think it is an important tool to have.”
But you can have a cell phone and still exercise caution. Texting, as opposed to talking on the phone, carries one-tenth the risk of exposure to radiation, he said.
Cell phones are just one way humans are subjected to electromagnetic radiation in the modern world, he notes. Automatic doors and auto-flush toilets are two common devices that send out minute signals.
It all adds up, Perlmutter said. “Small forces acting over a long time can produce significant change,” he said.
After the initial wave of publicity in the early 1990s, Perlmutter faded from the headlines of cell phone danger story.
His practice now is uses an approach to medicine that incorporates vitamin therapy, nutritional supplements, herbal preparations and massage.
His Perlmutter Brain Foundation champions research into how modifying behavior can cut the risk of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
But he still remembers how he got drawn into beginning of the now-20-year-old debate. “In little old Naples, Florida these two guys stroll in with brain tumors and their cell phones.”
Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten