Out of the West: Health scare gives phone poseurs a hang-up

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WASHINGTON - For a quick strike at the jugular of national life here, it is hard to beat David Reynard. A few days ago this hitherto unknown resident of Florida appeared on television with an astonishing claim. His wife, he said, had died of brain cancer caused by the excessive use of a cellular phone, from radio waves emitted from the antenna held close to her head. He said he was suing the phone's manufacturer, and the company that supplied it, for damages. The result has been bedlam.

I would not be averse to anything that slows the progress of the cellular phone: a privacy-destroying, status-motivated intruder into civilised life. But more than 10 million Americans do not share that view - which explains the uproar created by Mr Reynard. Two US obsessions, health and the telephone, have fused. Stock markets have shuddered, an industry trembles, while product liability lawyers quiver in anticipation. Not bad for 20 minutes on a talk show.

New technology always brings new scares. As a child I was warned not to watch too much television because of strange and invisible rays allegedly emitted by the screen. Then I became the owner of one of those luminous watches, which once were all the rage - only to have someone spoil the fun by saying that the paint which allowed you to see in the dark was radioactive. And lately there have been the supposed dangers of spending all day in front of computer terminals.

There have been reports warning of the cancer risks associated with living close to overhead power lines. Microwave ovens and computers have also come under scrutiny. In California there is already a pressure group, called Citizens Concerned About Electromagnetic Fields. Now it is the turn of the cellular phone.

Americans take their scares seriously: 'This could be the yuppies' version of Aids,' said a friend the other night, only half in jest.

And some sinister circumstantial evidence has added to the doubts; just as Mr Reynard went public with his lawsuit, it was revealed that a prominent US businessmen had died of brain cancer and another had contracted the disease. Spokesmen for their companies, the Wall Street Journal reported in that wonderful deadpan style of US newspapers, 'declined to discuss' whether either was a frequent user of cellular phones. Declined to discuss - why on earth not? Those people must be hiding something. Thus is a scare born.

Look at it another way, though, and the caution is more than understandable. We are talking very big bucks indeed. A decade ago, cellular phones were virtually unknown. Today, the briefcase of any self-respecting executive is empty without one. The market is worth more than dollars 6bn (pounds 4bn) a year; the owner of McCaw Cellular Communications has just agreed to sell to AT & T a minority stake in his company, one of the largest suppliers in the US, for dollars 3.8bn.

Before Mr Reynard held forth, 7,000 new customers were signing up daily, mostly for models like the one used by his wife with the transmitter in the handset, which you place next to your ear. No longer. Orders are being cancelled left and right; shares in McCaw and Motorola, the biggest manufacturer of cellular phones, have plunged by 15 or 20 per cent. Damage control is the order of the hour.

But who are we to believe? Motorola spokesmen have been reassuring all who would listen that 40 years' experience and thousands of studies have thrown up no evidence that cellular phones cause cancer. Others are not so sure. Certainly, they acknowledge, cellular phones use too little power to cause heat damage to the body. But what of the 'non-thermal' side-effects of close exposure to high frequency radio devices? In this area, there is as yet no reliable research. Instead, we neophytes thirsting for speedy enlightenment find ourselves adrift in a sea of learned theorising about megahertz, gigahertz, 'blood-brain barriers' and calcium cell coatings.

They had better sort it out soon; the future of a country where 'access' is all important may depend on it. Around the technological corner awaits the 'wireless world', in which personal pocket telephones no bigger than a bleeper will connect you to anywhere on the planet, and where computers and electronic notepads will communicate across the airwaves. Unless, of course, the lawyers get there first. If there is one thing worse than missing a phone call, it is brain cancer.