When news broke this week that the World Health Organization had declared cellphones a possible cancer risk, chatty people everywhere suddenly found themselves worrying about brain tumors behind their ears. But concerns about how cellphones affect the human body lurk below the belt, as well. For men, anyway, that area near where phones spend most of their time—in your pocket—could also be in peril.
No studies have linked cell-phone use to testicular cancer. Sterility, however, is another matter. Experiments on whether the radio-frequency radiation emitted by cellphones damages sperm (even when the phone is turned off) have been conducted since at least 2003, when a rat study found “no evidence suggesting an adverse effect of cellphone exposure on…testicular function or structure.” Another rat study two years later was also reassuring, finding that the radiation “emitted by a conventional cellular telephone does not impair testicular function in adult rats.”
Unfortunately, these studies were not the last word. A 2005 mouse study found “a significant genotoxic [DNA-damaging] effect on…spermatozoa.”
A 2007 rat study found “significantly higher incidence of sperm cell death,” suggesting “that carrying cellphones near reproductive organs could negatively affect male fertility.” And a 2009 rat study found that the radiation from cellphones “negatively affects semen quality and may impair male fertility.”
Of course, these are just lab animals. Surely the human male is made of tougher stuff, so that a little cell-phone radiation is no more damaging to his family jewels than, say, pollen?
Sad to say, this may not be the case. In a study scheduled for publication in the journal Andrologia but posted online in March, researchers at the Medical University of Graz in Austria reported bad news. They examined the records of 2,110 men treated at the university’s fertility clinic from 1993 to 2007. Remarkably, 1,119 of those men did not use cellphones (mostly from the early years, not surprisingly.) That allowed the researchers to compare users to non-users. Results: in users, an average of 68 percent of the sperm had “a pathological morphology,” such as aberrant heads or tails, compared to 58 percent in non-users. (If the 58 percent seems high, remember that these men had all gone to a fertility clinic.) “Our results showed that cellphone use negatively affects sperm quality in men,” the researchers conclude.
68 percent of the sperm had “a pathological morphology,” such as aberrant heads or tails.
These are not the first such findings. In her 2010 book Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family, Devra Davis recounts the story of a couple who had been unable to conceive. One doctor told them to keep their cellphones off their bodies and use them only to text or with a corded headset for two months. Within a year, they had a baby.
Anecdotes are not data, of course, and you could probably find a previously infertile couple who conceived after hopping on their right feet for 10 minutes every night for a month. Coincidences happen. But in this case, Davis argues, the anecdote jibes with research. In 2008, for instance, scientists led by Ashok Agarwal, director of research at the Center for Reproductive Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, announced the findings of a study on 361 men treated at a fertility clinic. About 10 percent rarely or never used a cellphone, while just over half were on their cell more than two hours a day. Using a cellphone, the scientists concluded, “decrease[s] the semen quality in men by decreasing the sperm count, motility, viability, and normal morphology.” Or, as Agarwal put it less formally, “semen quality tended to decline as daily cellphone use increased. Men who said they used their phones for more than four hours each day had the lowest average sperm count and motility and the lowest numbers of normal, viable sperm.”
Agarwal’s team wanted to see whether the link between cell use and wimpy sperm was just a coincidence. They took sperm from a few dozen men and, back in the lab, kept half of each sample away from cellphone radiation and the others half an inch away from a cellphone. (An inch is about the distance between a man’s trouser pocket and his testes.) The sperm within shouting distance of the cellphones were the worst swimmers and had the most deformities.
Now for the caveats. Even poor swimmers can become fathers, and questions remain about whether the sperm damage in cellphone users is severe enough to cause infertility. “When it comes to investigating whether cellphones impact . . . human reproduction,” Davis argues, “we are in the midst of another vast uncontrolled experiment on ourselves.”
Men who don’t want to compromise their paternity prospects can take the same precautions as cellphone users who want to minimize their chance of developing brain cancer. Pick a model with the lowest SAR value, a measure of the radiation absorbed by biological tissue, as I described at the end of this story. And don’t keep your phone in your pants pocket.
Sharon Begley is the science columnist and science editor of Newsweek. She is the co-author of the 2002 book, The Mind and the Brain, and the author of the 2007 book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.