Cancer calling: East Bay couple on a mission to warn of cell phone risks

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For more than 20 years, Alan Marks of Lafayette used his cell phone almost as if it was attached to the right side of his head. As a real-estate broker always on the move, he was on his cell phone constantly — an average of two hours a day by his own estimation.

Now, he’s what a brain tumor specialist in Sweden has referred to as “the poster boy” for the increased risk of cancer due to prolonged cell phone use.

And he’s someone who had his name uttered many times during the Mishebeirach (healing prayer) at Temple Sinai in Oakland — after having a life-threatening, golf-ball sized tumor removed from his brain in 2008.

“At that time, the people who knew Alan, including me, were extremely worried,” said Rabbi Steven Chester of Temple Sinai, where Marks, his wife, Ellie, and three now-adult children (Zack, Jordan and Amanda) have been members since the 1980s.

“Ellie told me about the diagnosis and the difficulties that go along with something as serious as this,” Chester added. “It did not sound like the prognosis was very good, so of course we all were worried.”

Always active and vibrant, Marks never figured he’d be someone whose fellow congregants would be praying for his life. Not at age 58.

But in May 2008, Marks suffered a grand mal seizure in the middle of the night. Six weeks later, he underwent surgery for seven hours to remove a large, cancerous tumor from the right side of his brain. “I don’t think there’s any question it’s going to come back,” Ellie told a CBS News reporter earlier this year.

Alan, Ellie and Amanda Marks with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in July. photo/courtesy of ellie marks

Ellie said doctors before and after the surgery were reluctant to say what caused her husband’s cancer. But the couple started thinking that it was perhaps his constant cell phone use.

Marks was so attached to his phone that once, when he forgot to pack it for a family vacation to Mexico, he had his secretary send it to him via FedEx.

“It got to the point of ridiculousness,” Ellie said. “He became obsessive. There were times I threatened to throw the phone in the garbage. I wish I had.”

After the surgery, Ellie sent her husband’s cell phone records and copies of his brain scans to brain tumor experts around the world. That’s when Dr. Lennart Hardell, an oncology professor in Sweden, called Alan “the poster boy,” Ellie said, for increased risk of cancer related to prolonged cell phone use.

“I no longer keep a cell phone to my head or body,” said Marks, who hasn’t experienced any tumor re-growth since the surgery two years ago.

While the Markses are convinced cell phone usage caused the cancer, experts and government health and safety organizations have concluded that wireless devices meeting established safety guidelines “pose no known health risk,” said John Walls, a spokesman for the Cellular Telephone Industries Association. Every cell phone sold in the United States must meet such guidelines, established by the FCC, added Walls, speaking for a group that represents the wireless communications industry.

Alan and Ellie Marks would beg to differ about any such claims. Along with the support of experts, the Markses have taken it upon themselves to vigilantly publicize scientific data that they contend links radiation emitted by cell phones to cancers of the brain, neck and head, in addition to other life-threatening diseases.

“I never had any idea that this was going to happen,” said Marks. He says his cell phone records show that he logged 10,000 hours of usage between 1987 and 2008 (about 1.3 hours per day, every day).

Now, he and his wife are on a mission to get others to stop putting cell phones up to their ears or even holding them near their bodies. Their son Zack, 27, is also involved. He launched the California Brain Tumor Association website (, which includes nearly 170 links to articles and clips related to his family’s work.

“I liken it to how people took on the tobacco industry many years ago, or to that Julia Roberts movie, ‘Erin Brockovich,’ ” Chester said. “I am not a medical expert and I have no proof, but certainly it’s something that should be looked into more than it has been.”

Chester said that the Jewish community not only needs to be educated and involved in the issue, but also has an obligation to at least be aware.

“If there’s some substance to it, it should be pursued — and that makes it a religious issue,” he said. “With anything that might possibly be detrimental to one’s health, but that might get buried because of economic reasons or because people are trying to go up against big companies, it becomes a Jewish issue.”

Like Brockovich, Ellie Marks has marched headfirst into battle. She has testified before Congress as well as appeared on “Larry King Live,” “The Dr. Oz Show” and many national newscasts. In March, she traveled to Maine, where state Rep. Andrea Boland pushed to have a printed label on each phone warning of the potential for brain cancer linked to electromagnetic radiation. The proposal was voted down.

Just last week, Ellie and Alan had a private meeting with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who sponsored legislation that led to San Francisco, in June, becoming the first city in the nation to pass a cell phone radiation disclosure ordinance. The “Cell Phone Right-to-Know” ordinance requires all retailers to display the amount of radiation each device emits, although the CTIA filed a lawsuit July 23 to block its enforcement.

After their meeting with Newsom, the Markses were interviewed on KGO Channel 7. Alan applauded the ordinance, saying such a law could have prevented him from getting cancer.

“I would have used [my phone] in a different way. I wouldn’t have held it to my head,” he told KGO reporter Carolyn Tyler. “I would have used the speaker phone. I would have used the headset, Bluetooth in the car, and I would not have had the problems I had.”

Chester, in turn, applauded the work that the Markses are doing.

“If there is something here, Ellie’s at the forefront and has taken a tremendous stand,” he said. “I believe she has the right to be heard.”

However, both the CTIA and the FCC (which regulates the cell phone industry) have said there is little conclusive proof that establishes a definite link between extensive cell phone usage and life-threatening diseases.

According to a CBS News report, the National Cancer Institute says studies have not shown any consistent link between cell phone use and cancer, but that more research is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

Try telling that to Ellie. “I’m going to watch my husband die from this,” she said.

In the fall, Ellie plans to hold a panel discussion at Temple Sinai to educate congregants about this issue. A date has not been set yet.

Two years ago, Ellie contacted Lloyd Morgan, a Berkeley man who underwent surgery in 1995 to remove a massive brain tumor. The retired electronics engineer has spent some 15 years since then investigating health problems caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields.

Morgan, a member of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, has presented his findings at several science conferences and has authored two pieces of legislation, one in California and one in Congress, that passed into law and changed the way brain tumor data was collected by cancer registries.

In addition, Morgan and Ellie Marks have worked together to spread their message.

“Exposure to cell phone radiation is the largest human health experiment ever undertaken without informed consent, and has some 4 billion participants enrolled,” said Morgan, lead author of the article “Cell phones and Brain Tumors: 15 Reasons for Concern.”

Morgan’s tumor was not directly related to cell phone use. He had at least four risk factors: working as an electronics engineer; operating a ham radio as a teenager; getting full-mouth dental X-rays as a child; and sleeping next to a clock radio for at least two decades.

As for cell phones, CBS News reported that radiation produced by them is stronger than an FM radio signal, but just one-billionth the intensity of an X-ray.

And when Boland’s legislation for warning labels was voted down in Maine, a state scientist said there was no conclusive evidence of a connection between cancer and cell phone usage. “You go back 20 or 30 years, there’s no increase in these cancer rates during this time,” Dr. Dora Anne Mills of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention told CBS.

Countered Morgan: “I went straight to the science. Cell phone radiation damages DNA, which can lead to cancer and other diseases. … The information exists, and there is this incredible ability of the $4 trillion industry to keep it from public view. It’s beyond outrageous.”

Morgan and Ellie Marks are rallying for — among other things — warning labels on all wireless devices, banning marketing promotions of cell phones designed for children and financing an awareness campaign aimed at young people to minimize their exposure to cell phone radiation.

Germany, the United Kingdom, Israel and other countries are already recommending that people, especially children, limit their exposure to cell phones.

For example, the Israeli Health Ministry in 2008 warned cell phone users of potential health risks and recommended ways to reduce exposure. The recommendation was spearheaded by Dr. Sigal Sadetzki, director of the cancer unit at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center in central Israel.

But in the United States, such warnings have been slow to come.

“There are times when I feel like Jeremiah,” said Morgan, referring to the biblical prophet whom God appointed to reveal the sins of the people and the coming consequences. “I’m screaming and no one is listening. But this is my sense of tikkun olam. I’m giving back so that others do not have to suffer what I had to.”

The FCC does suggest keeping wireless devices away from one’s body when they are on; not attaching them to belts or carrying them in pockets; using a speaker to reduce head exposure; and buying a phone with a lower SAR (specific absorption rate). However, the FCC does not require manufacturers to disclose the amount of radiation for wireless devices.

In most cases, guidelines for usage are listed inside cell phone packaging, but critics contend the printing is too tiny to read.

During the interview last week on KGO, Ellie said, “It’s like buying a loaf of bread. Should the ingredients be on the inside of the bag, and you get home and then you open it up and you find out that there’s things in it you can’t eat? No.”

These days, Alan and Ellie are still using cell phones — but never without an earpiece. And Ellie says she has to force herself not to approach people on the street holding cell phones to their ears.

“It’s very difficult to see people doing that, but I have to walk away,” Ellie said. “They won’t listen to me. My family’s endured hell and I refuse to admit this has all been for nothing. Something good has to come from this.”

Added Alan: “No one should have to go through what I did.”