“Are men talking their reproductive health away?” a 2015 study in the Asian Journal of Andrology asks.
There have been “unexplained declines in semen quality reported in several countries,” according to a 2014 review in Environment International. Might cellphones be playing a role?
“Radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation [RF-EMR] from these devices could potentially affect sperm development and function,” said the UK researchers behind the review in Environment International.
The cellphone industry bristles at the “R-word,” preferring the more innocuous-sounding “RF-EMFs” to radiation. However, it does have a point about “radiation” being used by snake-oil hucksters of “radiation protection” gadgets. Radiation isn’t only found in atomic bomb gamma rays. The warm glow of sunshine on your face is also radiation. The question is: Does the specific type of radiation emitted by cellphones affect male fertility?
After the “World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared that “cellphones … [could possibly] cause brain cancer,” many switched to hands-free devices, keeping their phones in their pants and using Bluetooth or other technology. So they’ve managed to keep their phone away from their brains, but close to their gonads. The UK researchers put all of the studies together, including nearly 1,500 semen samples, and found that “exposure to mobile phones was associated with reduced sperm motility … and viability,” though not necessarily sperm concentration.
How much was their swimming ability affected? Sperm motility appeared to be about 8 percent lower, but that alone may not actually translate into reduced fertility unless you’re starting out with a marginal sperm count. It might be better to avoid keeping an active cellphone near your crotch for long periods of time, especially if you’re a man who already has fertility problems.
Cellphone exposure may just be one of a number of modern-day environmental exposures that could contribute to fertility issues. For example, Wi-Fi may be an issue. In a study published in The Kaohsiung Journal of Medical Sciences, Turkish researchers took semen samples from more than 1,000 men, and “the total number of motile sperm … were decreased in a group who used a wireless internet compared with ones who used the wired internet.”
These were all observational studies, however. Maybe men who use Wi-Fi just tend to smoke more, or maybe they ride more horses, and that’s the reason for the apparent link. It’s impossible to know until it’s put to the test.
Unfortunately, many of the studies were conducted on rats. While the microwaves emitted from a cellphone don’t appear to affect rat testicles, it can be argued that you can’t necessarily extrapolate from these animal models, since their reproductive organs are so different. For example, their scrotums are “non-pendulous,” meaning that their testicles are more inside rather than being exposed on the outside of their bodies.
In light of these concerns, a paper presented at the 2008 Antennas and Propagation Conference advised that “until proven otherwise, it is recommended that those with subfertility issues” may not want to keep their cellphones in their front pants pockets “in close proximity to the testicles. Even when not in use, mobile phones emit radiation periodically” to keep pinging their location.
However, main exposure takes place when calls are being made or received, when the device may still remain in the pocket, thanks to headsets or Bluetooth. The conference paper also answered another question: What happens when you then have your phone in proximity to other common metal objects? For example, you may have a metal zipper on your trousers and a keyring in your pocket along with your phone.
“When all three objects were added, the SAR [the amount of radiation absorbed] in both the leg and in the testicles was generally increased and approximately doubled,” the paper reads.
That’s only a problem if the radiation actually damages sperm, however. One might wonder if someone could design a study where a person simply waves a cellphone over some human sperm in a Petri dish to see if there’s an issue. Researchers did just that and published their findings in the Central European Journal of Urology in 2014.
The researchers conducting the study found significantly more DNA fragmentation in sperm exposed to cellphone radiation, starting within an hour of exposure. This is such a dramatic effect that they suggest that women might not want to pocket their phones for a few days after trying to get pregnant, so as to not put the sperm at further risk.