Ideally, the introduction of a novel stimulus to our environment would be preceded by rigorous safety studies conducted by independent researchers. Applied to industrial seed oils, wheat, running shoes, and office chairs, this protocol could have saved us a lot of pain and suffering. If you wait until way after the fact to wonder whether they might be bad for us – as we tend to do – these admittedly inexpensive/addictive/profit-reaping stimuli become entrenched. They become part of the culture. Wheat and soybeans? Much of the world depends on both or either, for food, livestock feed, and cooking oil. Most runners, walkers, and orthopedists think barefooting is suicidal, and you’ll pull something trying to pry chairs away from our tight, stiff hips.
Some would include the cell phone on that list of toxic stimuli deserving closer scrutiny. The cell phone certainly satisfies the “entrenchment” criterion. It has become ubiquitous. Everyone has cell phones – kids, teens, parents, grandparents – and home phones are becoming quaint things. I doubt any of my employees even have landlines anymore, for example. I’ve got one, but it’s rarely used. But is the cell phone really toxic? You’ve probably heard about the possible links between cell phone radiation and brain cancer, which I’ve discussed in the past. A recent report by the World Health Organization has reignited interest in the possibility of a cancer-phone connection, but, as I said in the earlier post, I’m just not that worried about brain cancer. It’s a rare disease, even if gabbing on the phone does increase your chance of developing it, and I’m not a big cell phone talker, anyway. So, does that take care of that? Are cell phones off the hook?
Perhaps not. It’s not as scary or headline-grabbing as brain cancer, but some researchers claim that exposure to electromagnetic waves from cell phones can negatively effect certain physiological barometers of male fertility, including sperm count (the more sperm per ejaculation, the greater the chance of impregnation), sperm motility (the ability of sperm to head in the direction of the egg determines their ability to fertilize), and morphology (physical structure of the sperm). I’d argue that reproductive health affects every male. Even if he never plans to reproduce, an adult male should have the capability to do so, because an inability indicates and even predicts future health problems. A fertile man is a healthy man.
Cell phone use is at a historically unprecedented level, because, well, cell phones have only been readily available for around twenty years or so, and they’ve only become entrenched in the last decade (Zack Morris and Gordon Gekko-style phones don’t really count). I don’t think I have to provide a reference for that when a quick look around the coffee shop or bus or train (or freeway) will reveal a cell phone in every pocket, hand, or totally awesome hip-holster. Meanwhile, sperm counts have been steadily dropping for years, mostly in industrialized countries and especially in the United States. I indicted poor bone density and the influence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in a previous post on male infertility, but I’m not opposed to the notion that stationing an electromagnetic wave-emitting device adjacent to one’s testicles for the better part of the day might negatively impact fertility. It’s not clear if sperm count has continued to drop through the last ten years, because we don’t have reliable, conclusive sperm count numbers from the last 2, 5, or even 10 years. For what it’s worth, Slate suggests poor male fertility might explain the drop in teen pregnancy rates.
Basically, cell phone usage is way up, most people keep them nestled next to their reproductive bits, but sperm counts had already been dropping for decades before cell phones entered the scene. We also don’t know if sperm counts have continued to drop in the past ten years (though most signs point to yes) and if they have, we can’t say that cell phones are the (or a) cause. The data simply isn’t available.
Animal studies offer valuable avenues of insight into potential health risks. They allow researchers to test hypotheses generated from epidemiology, tease out cause and effect, and explore biological mechanisms, thus paving the way for further trials, sometimes involving humans. Also, it’s legal to bathe rabbit testicles in electromagnetic waves from cell phones to determine whether fertility is affected. Human males, not so much (though we often do it of our own volition). There have been many animal trials on the subject, so let’s look at a few of them:
Rabbits subjected to a normal 8-hours-in-your-pocket dose of cell phone electromagnetic waves showed lowered sperm count at six weeks (from 304 x 106/mL to 133 x 106/mL), impaired sperm motility at week ten, and a significant reduction in the diameter of the seminiferous tubules (the tubular structures in the testicles where sperm is manufactured; smaller diameter means lower output). Control rabbits displayed normal numbers across the board. As to whether this is relevant to humans, the seminiferous tubular diameters of infertile men are often smaller than in fertile men.
Cell phone-using rabbits displayed lower levels of fructose in their semen than control rabbits. We produce seminal fructose with androgen hormones, and a lack of it indicates poor seminal vesicle function. In humans, increasing seminal fructose levels improves sperm motility.
Electromagnetic waves from cell phones induced an infertility pattern in the reproductive capabilities of rats, with significant levels of free radicals inducing oxidative damage. Similar treatment with cell phone waves lowered sperm count and induced apoptosis (cell death) in another group of rats.
Those are animal studies, albeit somewhat convincing ones. They show that cell phone waves can do something to rat and rabbit male fertility well enough to make us wonder about humans.
One “human” study back in 2008 got some headlines. “Cell phones can affect sperm quality, researcher says” read a headline describing the study, even as the very same researcher quoted in the headline acknowledged its major limitations. First of all, it was an in vitro study. They exposed 16 isolated semen samples in test tubes to an 850 MHz (a commonly used frequency) cell phone on talk mode 2.5 cm away for an hour. Compared to the control group of 16 samples, the exposed semen displayed 85% more oxidative stress and showed poorer sperm motility. And although researchers attempted to recreate normal everyday exposure by positioning the phones 2.5 cm away, they couldn’t account for the added skin, muscle, bone, and blood standing in the way of a pocketed cell phone as it tries to send electromagnetic waves toward the testicles. Would the effect be the same in a real world situation? Would it be amplified, reduced? Does flesh protect against radiation, so much that the electromagnetic waves from a cell phone in your pocket would never actually reach your testicles?
In another in vitro study, isolated sperm from healthy donors subjected to 900 MHz waves showed altered morphology and poor binding at the hemizona (binding at the hemizona is crucial for reproduction). Another in vitro study found that cell phone radiation impaired human sperm motility.
Researchers, guessing that it was the apoptosis (cell death) induced by cell phones that was wreaking havoc on animal fertility, tested whether the idea held up in human spermatozoa. It did not. When exposed to cell phone radiation, “highly motile” human sperm showed no indication of apoptosis.
There are also interesting observational studies. The most recent one revealed that cell phone-using male fertility patients had lower sperm counts than male patients who did not use a cell phone, as others have before. Oddly, the cell users in this study had higher circulating testosterone. How can this be? Isn’t high testosterone good for sperm production? Yes, but the cell users were also lower in luteinizing hormone, which helps convert circulating testosterone to the type used to produce sperm.
What do we make of this?
First of all, don’t freak out. Everyone has a cell phone now and yet somehow we manage to propagate the species, so it’s not catastrophic. That doesn’t preclude the existence of a negative effect, however. In fact, if I had to bet, I’d say the way we use and carry cell phones (eight to ten hours a day in our pocket) probably has an effect on our fertility. It might be small, and it might be limited to those with poor eating and exercising habits and heavy endocrine-disrupting chemical loads, but it’s worth considering. Here are my suggestions:
- Don’t use your genitals to answer phone calls. It’s a great party trick, but it might decrease your fertility.
- If you’re worried (especially if you plan on having kids), get regular sperm checks. Get a baseline quality assessment (motility, count), make a concerted effort to keep your cell phone off or away from your crotch when not in use, and test your numbers again after a month. Aim for at least 20 million per mL, which is on the low end of normal.
- Leave your phone in your bag when you’re out with it, if you have one. If you don’t, consider buying one. Remember, it’s a man-bag, not a purse.
- Take your phone out of your pocket when it’s possible – while driving, at a restaurant, at home, at the coffee shop.
- Leave your phone at home/office. Out for a walk at lunch or after dinner? Resist the urge to fill your pocket with phone. Instead, use this time to disengage from the phone world and be present in the outside world.
- Turn your phone off. Obviously, if you’re expecting an important call, keep it on. If you’re just keeping the phone on your person for readiness’ sake, turn the phone off until you want to check it.
- If you’re trying to have kids, keep cell phones away from that area. Of course, remember that plenty of cell phone users have impregnated women, very possibly with a cell phone in the pocket at the time of conception.
I’m done having kids, and I’ve never been a slave to the phone, so I”m not going to stress over this. After all, we know that stress definitely kills, maims, and otherwise injures millions of people, whereas the cell phone effect is still murky. That said, if I were to have kids, I would make it a point to avoid heavy cell phone usage while trying. I wouldn’t bother with tin-foil codpieces or anything like that. I’d just limit my phone time and try to keep it out of my pocket, or off. That seems like a fair, reasonable move to make, and a safe bet, too, until more evidence accumulates in either direction. I’m glad that researchers are asking questions (PDF) like “Cell Phones: Modern Man’s Nemesis?” (awesomely worded). Better late than never. If it turns out that electromagnetic waves from cell phones are a chronic toxin (I think acute toxicity is out of the question at this point), I doubt society will stop using them en masse, but workarounds and mitigation strategies will know what they’re up against.
The science definitely isn’t settled, but there are clues. What are your thoughts on cell phones and male fertility? If you see cell phones in the pocket as a problem, how do you mitigate or avoid it? Let everyone know in the comment section!