Wake Up Call: The Story of One Woman's Quest to Save Lives

Ellen Marks

On the night of May 5, 2008, I awoke to the sight of my husband's arms flailing, face contorting, eyes rolling back in the head.Alan was having a grand mal seizure. Unable to wake him, I called 911. When he finally opened his eyes Alan couldn't speak or understand anything the paramedics asked of him. At 4:00am in a cold emergency room, I was told he had a mass in his right frontal lobe, the part of the brain that allows us to differentiate between right and wrong, to control our impulses, and to relate to those we love. For years he had been exhibiting unexplainable behavior that caused emotional chaos in our family. Now we knew the cause. At age 56, he was diagnosed with a glioma - a malignant and lethal brain tumor.

Six weeks later, Alan underwent a seven-hour craniotomy and resection of the glioma. Today, with titanium holding his skull in place, he is able to walk and talk. Deficits nonetheless remain, and the prognosis is that the tumor will almost certainly grow back - much more aggressively than before.

Coincidentally, our son Zack had interned for Senator Ted Kennedy, whose seizure occurred just 10 days after Alan's. At the time there was speculation in the media that the senator's tumor might be related to his frequent cell phone use. I'd also heard on CNN a suggestion by Dr. Keith Black, chairman of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, that Attorney Johnnie Cochran's tumor might have resulted from the same cause.

All of this got me thinking. For about 20 years, Alan's cell phone was a vital part of his work, always on, always ringing, always next to the right side of his head - the same side as the tumor.

I began researching cell phone risk studies. While I found much disagreement among scientists about the risks associated with cell phone use, the research on glioma by oncologist and cancer epidemiologist Dr. Lennart Hardell et. al. at University Hospital in Örebro, Sweden (2009) seemed particularly relevant to what had happened to my husband. Dr. Hardell found "a consistent pattern of an association between mobile phone use and ipsilateral [on one side of the head] glioma and acoustic neuroma [a benign tumor of the hearing nerve] using ≥ 10-years latency period." According to Dr. Hardell, the heaviest users of cell phones have doubled the risk of brain tumors after a decade.

I sent my husband's medical and cell phone records to Dr. Hardell and asked him if he thought there might be a connection to Alan's brain tumor. He responded that, in his professional opinion, "It is more probable than not that [Alan] Marks' glioma was caused by his long-term mobile phone use according to current literature."

I also sent my husband's medical and cell phone records to Dr. Elihu Richter, head of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Medicine, whose research calculates risk assessment of occupational exposure to radiation, including cell phones. Dr. Richter offered a similar assessment: "The weight of evidence suggests it is more likely than not that there is a cause/effect relationship between [Alan's] heavy cell phone use and his brain tumor. The fact that a brain tumor appeared after a 10-year latent period and on the right side, where he held the phone, is consistent with the emerging body of knowledge on exposure, latency, and laterality of cell phone use."

What was I to do with this alarming information? As a Jew I considered it my sacred duty to inform others how responsible cell phone use might possibly spare them and their loved ones from the suffering my family had endured. To save a life, our tradition teaches, is to save the world.

But with a sick husband, did I have the energy to take on this struggle? And if I did, exactly how far was I prepared to go?

Shortly thereafter, during a Shabbat service at my congregation, Temple Sinai in Oakland, I read these words in Mishkan T'filah-A Reform Siddur:

When justice burns within us like a flaming fire,
When love evokes willing sacrifice from us,
When, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we demonstrate our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness,
Then Your goodness enters our lives and we can begin to change the world.
And then You live in our hearts, and we, through righteousness, behold our truth.

My decision was made. I couldn't stand idly by in the face of what I saw as an injustice, for "Who can protest and does not is an accomplice of the act" (Talmud Bavli Tractate Shabbat 54b).

Several international scientists and doctors who studied the relationship between cell phones and cancer personally embraced and supported our family. Dr. Richter of Israel, for example, spent hours on the phone with me explaining how he could help Alan regain some of his cognitive, physical, and behavioral abilities. Dr. Devra Davis, an epidemiologist and cancer researcher who founded the Environmental Health Trust and authored the book Disconnect on the cell phone controversy, called me often to meditate on the Sh'ma and pray together. My new friends had become a blessing.

On September 24, 2008, I testified before a congressional committee in Washington, D.C. My public activism had begun.

After telling the lawmakers what had happened to Alan, I urged them to "demand thatwarnings about cell phone usage and the radiation they emit be stated on every cell phone. By doing so you will protect our most precious resource of all - human life."

Wanting to learn more, in 2009 I attended an Environmental Health Trust Expert Conference on cell phones and health. Experts from 10 nations reported on their scientific findings. Martin Blank, Ph.D., professor of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics at Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons, reported that microwave radiation has the potential of changing bonds in DNA strands which could lead to cancer. Dr. Leif Salford, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery, Lund University, Sweden, reported a positive correlation between gliomas and mobile-phone exposure, which he attributed to DNA damage caused by cell phone radiation occurring at non-thermal levels. Dr. Salford's finding called into question the belief widely held among scientists that cell phone radiation could not cause cancer because it is non-thermal.

Yet Dr. Michael Thun, vice president of the American Cancer Society, reported that when looking at all the studies to date, the data on brain tumor risk had been reassuring. A heated discussion ensued. Dr. Siegal Sadetzki, an Israeli epidemiologist and physician who drafted the Israeli government's official warning on cell phones, asked Dr. Thun in astonishment, "How can you say such a thing?" Another attendee commented, "[It's] tobacco all over again, only worse."

Dr. Thun's position is consistent with those of the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration, the National Cancer Institute, and the Federal Communications Commission. These agencies consider cell phones safe, though they acknowledge that more research is needed. The 2008-2009 President's Cancer Panel's "Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk" (an annual report of the U.S. Department of Health and Homeland Services, National Institutes of Health, and National Cancer Institute) did acknowledge, however, that epidemiologic studies "have been able to assess only short lag periods [of use] and focused on a small number of cancer types. Thus while considerable research has been conducted on cancer risk due to RF (radio frequency radiation) from cell phones…the available data are neither consistent nor conclusive…." Subsequent studies on the potential dangers of cell phone use have not produced a consensus among scientists in different countries.

Most recently, on May 31, 2011, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans based on increased risk for glioma associated with wireless phone use. IARC Director Christopher Wild said, "Given the potential consequences...of this classification and findings, it is important that additional research be conducted into the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones. Pending the availability of...information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure, such as hands-free
devices or texting."

While I was still in Washington, I appeared on CNN with Wolf Blitzer and on Fox News with Shepard Smith. Alan, our children, and I appeared on The Dr. Oz Show , during which Dr. Mehmet Oz declared, "I've heard enough to make me rethink my cell phone use and that of my children."

In December 2009, I began working with the San Francisco Department of Environment and the mayor's office on a "Right-to-Know" ordinance that would require posting at point-of-sale (in addition to within user guides) the amount of radiation (Specific Absorption Rate or SAR) a cell phone emits. San Francisco's mayor, Gavin Newsom, however, was not yet fully on board.

One night, my husband, his brother, sister-in-law, and I were having dinner in a San Francisco restaurant when our waitress mentioned that Mayor Newsom was sitting near us. My sister-in-law looked me in the eye, gave me the thumbs-up, and said, "You go, girl!" Timidly I approached the mayor and, after introducing myself, told him I would be testifying at the cell phone hearing Monday night. The mayor said he knew who I was, and, gripping my hand, assured me, "This is going to be just fine."

When I arrived at the hearing, Debbie Raphael of the San Francisco Department of Environment approached me and asked, "Just what did you say to the mayor at dinner the other night?" Mayor Newsom had endorsed the cell phone legislation, and the committee voted to move it forward! Six months later, despite strong opposition from CTIA, the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry, the bill passed 10-1. Similar legislation is being considered in other California cities.

I am not opposed to using cell phones. But it angers me that the U.S. government and national health agencies do not do a better job of warning people of the potential risks, especially to young children, whose brains absorb more radiation than adults and who, the President's Cancer Panel acknowledges, "have ahead of them a lifetime of RF [radio frequency] and other radiation exposures and, therefore, special caution is prudent."

Other nations have gone much further in alerting the public. The Israeli government, for example, has banned the marketing of cell phones to children and requires manufacturers to display the SAR on every cell phone. And in France, cell phones are not allowed in schools, and every cell phone is required to be sold with a headset.

Trying to effect change on this issue has not been easy. There are great obstacles, such as the love people have for their devices and people's resistance to acknowledging the potential dangers. Many times I've wanted to give up my advocacy out of despair-such as when I see my own niece holding a cell phone against her head. But my fear that, without action, we will face a pandemic of brain cancer within the next 20 years prevents me from keeping silent.

Thankfully, I have the support of my rabbi, Steven Chester, who believes, "Anything that might be detrimental to one's health, but might get buried…becomes a Jewish issue." At his invitation, I addressed our congregation on the subject. Reciting the prayer from Mishkan T'filah-A Reform Siddur that had inspired me to take on this challenge brought me back full circle:

…When, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we demonstrate our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness,Then Your goodness enters our lives and we can begin to change the world.

Ellen Marks is a member of Temple Sinai in Oakland, California; a past president of Women of Temple Sinai and of the Sisterhood of Temple Israel in Stockton, California; co-founder with her son Zack of the California Brain Tumor Association; and lead author of the Cell Phone and Brain Cancer Legislative Briefing Book, which has been translated into eight languages, including Hebrew. She is also director of Government and Public Affairs for the Environmental Health Trust.

Ellen Marks' Recommended Cell Phone Precautions

Given the potential dangers of improper long-term cell phone use, the following steps can limit your radiation exposure:

  • Read the fine-print advisories in your user guide.
  • Use your cell phone less and a corded landline more often.
  • Keep a cell phone in "on" mode away from your head or body.
  • Do not sleep with a cell phone near your head (i.e., under your pillow or on a nightstand).
  • Avoid cell phone use in elevators, moving vehicles and rural areas, as the weaker the signal the stronger the radiation emitted.
  • Use a plastic tubed headset or speakerphone.
  • Do not allow children to use a cell phone, except in an emergency.
  • Text often (but not while driving).