Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
16 Jun

Are Cell Phones Bad for Male Fertility?

cellphonepocketIdeally, 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.

Epidemiological

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 Trials

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

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.

Rats

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.

Sixty minutes of cell phone exposure a day for three months reduced serum testosterone in male rats. Testosterone is crucial for all aspects of the reproductive process, obviously.

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.

Human Studies

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!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. It’s such an interesting topic. There is another article I saw about this… I’m glad the word is getting out.

    http://cavegirleats.com/2011/05/12/this-cant-be-good/

    Spence wrote on June 17th, 2011
  2. Isn’t science just great? The minute it starts to prove inconvenient facts contrary to your financial interests just stop doing science and you’re off the hook.

    Repeat the familiar “there are no scientific studies to prove that [your product] causes [negative health impact(s)]”

    Absence of evidence is evidence of absence, a remarkably effective process which got MSG, GM crops, and also cell phones approved for mass consumption.

    Yes, science is doing us great.

    Brandon wrote on June 19th, 2011
  3. If cell phone radiation can have a negative impact on fertility, you could expand that to the moment we started broadcasting radiowaves! We’re surrounded at all times by electromagnetic waves. The signal to your tv dish? Passing through you right now! This could explain the decline in sperm count; we’ve had a proverbial cell-phone next to our man-bits for 60+ years!

    Dave wrote on June 19th, 2011
    • The problem with cell phones is the proximity and duration of the signal. A radio tower broadcasts with more energy than a cell phone, but from farther away, so it is less of a health risk. With cell phones, the signal is broadcast right next to the body, so it would be a higher risk. Remember the inverse square law.

      Chris Sears wrote on June 19th, 2011
      • Great points made, however the argument that we have been exposed to your proverbial cell phones for 60+ years is a terrible argument for proliferating electromagnetic radiation in our environment.

        That is like saying the nuclear testing of the 50s and 60s put radioisotopes in the atmosphere and we’re still here so therefore its alright to put more radionuclides in the atmosphere.

        This is where my point comes in that the ‘absence of evidence is evidence of absence’ is naive and ignorant. People assume many things are safe because no one has properly investigated these things but I believe I have good reason to be concerned and cautious. I have absolutely no reason to trust the authorities in charge of monitoring such matters concerning health, pollutants and the environment because they have been in dereliction of duty on countless occasions.

        The take home message for me is that you can never trust or believe anything unless you perceive it by your own account. I take as little as possible for granted and in the process experience a great degree of freedom in regulating my own life.

        Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

        Brandon wrote on June 19th, 2011
  4. Read this book for more in-depth info on this topic:

    Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect by Devra Davis

    I found this book to be riveting and I believe one day we will learn that cell phone companies are much like tobacco companies. They knew it all along, just commissioned dozens of studies to muddy the waters and confuse consumers.

    Did you know every cell phone manual says do not hold the phone closer than one inch to your body? That’s to protect them in lawsuits.

    http://www.amazon.com/Disconnect-Radiation-Industry-Protect-Family/dp/B004LQ0ENC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1308505223&sr=8-1

    julie wrote on June 19th, 2011
  5. Great article, as ever Mark!

    I’m a huge fan of the old ‘man bag’… a far better alternative to having wallet/keys/phone/primal snacks etc hanging out of my pockets!

    There’s a great article here about this recent cell phone research. It turns out that the GSM signal used in the UK is about 28 times more harmful to human health than the CDMA signal used by most American networks:

    http://emf.mercola.com/sites/emf/archive/2011/06/18/finally-experts-admit-cellphones-are-a-carcinogen.aspx

    The mis-conception is that as we’re surrounded by EMF waves constantly, cell phones don’t pose any new threat. This couldn’t be further from the truth! It’s not just the level of radiation that they emit (known as the SAR rating) – it’s the specific frequencies that these EMF signals operate at… one VERY destructive to human DNA. My thought is that we will start to see direct correlations between fertility problems and mobile phone use – because of course the standard 2G signal is no longer enough for most people. We have bolted on all sorts of radioactive additions; 3G, GPRS, GPS, Wi-Fi, HSDPA etc. The fact is, most of these popular ‘smart phones’ that kids are carrying around next to their special parts are not so smart… carrying one is now tantamount to having tens of wireless internet routers strapped to the body… a ‘virtual suicide bomb’, if you will.

    As society at large has become less primal and more dependent on these untested, unsafe devices to regulate their lives – it’s up to people like us, I guess, to show them not how bad cell phones really are – but how great it is to get back to our roots!

    Leighton wrote on June 19th, 2011
  6. I stopped carrying my cell phone in my pocket, per Tim Ferris’s advice, about 6 to 8 months ago. Let me tell you, it makes a large, noticeable, visual difference. I don’t even like carrying it in my back pocket but sometimes there’s just nowhere to put it.

    David wrote on June 20th, 2011
  7. Thanks for a very well-balanced article, Mark, though almost none of the “studies” showing damage have been replicated by other groups. It’s hardly surprising since there’s no actual mechanism by which microwave radiation of that wavelength can cause damage to DNA. Turning up the power would just increase the heating effect, which is minuscule compared to that of the body, or indeed of the sunshine falling on it even on a cloudy day!

    As for Dr Devra Davis, who has been making a nice little packet out of crying “WOLF!”, she is not a physicist but a sociologist. She simply does not understand what she is talking about. Her tactics remind me of Ancel Keys… “cherry-picking’ data to support her case, while ignoring studies, no matter how strong, that refute it!

    Archie wrote on June 20th, 2011
    • Correction – she is an epidemiologist. Regardless, your science is outdated.

      DNA damage has been recorded by multiple sources, search Henry Lai, Wilhelm Mosgoeller, Santosh Kesari. – a list of pubs can be found in the references: http://www.disconnectbook.com/references/

      Many of them from well-known journals, such as Brain Research.

      Also, Richard Stein, a physician researcher conducting basic biological research on the genome at Princeton University, posted a response to the “lack of mechanism” argument in SCcientific American.

      “Any environmental exposure can have 2 mechanisms of action: 1). direct, and 2). indirect. It is true that the energy of cell phone radiation cannot break DNA, the missing word in this article is *directly*. Thus, even the title is incorrect, “Physics” does not show that cell phones cannot cause cancer, it only shows that DNA breakage is not *direct*.

      What about the *indirect* effects of cell phone radiation? About 6 different research groups have independently shown that DNA breakage occurs after cell phone radiation, and among some of the mechanisms implicated are 1). generation of reactive oxygen species, 2). protein phosphorylation, 3). cell cycle perturbations, 4). protein expression changes, particularly that of Hsp70 heat shock proteins. Yes, they even know the mechanisms! ”

      Would love your input.

      Nasreen wrote on June 21st, 2011
  8. Archie, according to the UK Department of Health ‘Mobile Phone Safety’ publications – there are clear negative effects of low wavelength radiation on the human body, as confirmed by the rising incidence of malignant brain tumors on the phone-bearing side of the head (UK), lower bone-density findings on the phone-carrying hip, as well as countless individuals across the world who report complex symptoms of nausea, pain, headaches etc. The thing is – science can’t understand how this low-frequency mechanism works, due to, (and I quote) “gaps in our current scientific knowledge”. As one comment earlier suggested – becuase we don’t currently have the research to understand how something works, does not mean that the process isn’t still occurring. We did not understand electricity for millions of years, but it was still operating efficiently, regardless of our lack of understanding of it. As for your comment:

    “It’s hardly surprising since there’s no actual mechanism by which microwave radiation of that wavelength can cause damage to DNA. Turning up the power would just increase the heating effect, which is minuscule compared to that of the body, or indeed of the sunshine falling on it even on a cloudy day!”

    With all good intention, I’d love to hear about the extensive research you have personally conducted to come to that surprising conclusion – as it seems to fly in the face of current, large-scale thought. (Like that of the 14 world scientists who have just published their findings to this effect via the WHO!).

    Leighton wrote on June 20th, 2011
  9. This is why I have my son wear painter’s pants and put is phone in the knee pocket rather than my future grandchildren pocket.

    gina wrote on July 3rd, 2011
  10. So in conclusion, we should find that people living around high watt radio and television antennas, and cell towers are dropping like flies from cancer and tumors?

    People who radios daily for work, like taxi dispatchers, police, ambulance, ham radio ethusiasts and lots of others.

    I just don’t see it.

    Sounds like more junk science to replace the fear of people living near power lines. Truth is your TV gives off more magnetic resonance than the power lines.

    Kenny wrote on July 18th, 2011
  11. What about airplane mode when not in use… Does that help?

    Andrew Schwartz wrote on June 13th, 2012

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