Stark Correlation Found Between Heavy Cellphone Use and Male Infertility

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This guy is doing it all wrong: He's slouched so the phone is too near his groin, which could wind up impairing his sperm quality.Credit: Bloomberg

Men, don't throw out your mobile phones just yet. But if you want children, don't slump while talking on your phone, because you have to keep the thing more than half a meter from your groin. Never talk on it while it's charging and yes, it's time to take your man-purse out of storage – you shouldn't keep your cellphone in your pants pocket.

A groundbreaking study done in Israel, albeit on a very small sample group, has found a stark correlation between sperm abnormalities and cellphone use. The main dangers are using it while it's charging, or for more than an hour a day – or using the phone less than 50 centimeters from the groin, says the team in their seminal paper "Habits of cell phone usage and sperm quality – does it warrant attention?"

Yes, it warrants attention. Male fertility has been declining for decades, for a great number of reasons. The short list includes pollution, sleep deprivation, gender-bending chemicals in everything from pesticides to fertilizers to cleaning solutions, tighty whities, overindulgence in Jacuzzis and smoking. Now an Israeli team has shown that radiation from mobile phones, an invention of the last 20 years, is also demonstrably a cause.

How serious is the effect? Cellphone "abuse" can double the probability of decline in sperm concentration, the team found.

As for how the cellphone measures against other risks to sperm count and quality, that hardly matters, points out paper coauthor Martha Dirnfeld, director of the Fertility and IVF unit at Carmel Medical Center and a professor at the Technion in Haifa.

Indeed many things can and do affect male reproductive capability, but there's nothing a given man can do about pollution. They're unlikely to stop smoking, either, and can't change the concentration of fluoride in the water – but they can stop using the phone within whispering distance of their gonads and sleeping next to them.  The cost is negligible and the benefit could be enormous, if one values one's sperm. "Even 50% compliance would be something," Dirnfeld says.

Confounding factors

Their paper is not the last word because the study tested a small group of only 80 Israeli men (it started with 106 men who had contacted fertility clinics, then 26 didn't make the cut). But the paper was accepted in a reputable peer-reviewed international journal, Reproductive BioMedicine, because of its meticulous methodology, Dirnfeld told Haaretz.

Cellphones emit radio frequency electromagnetic radiation. Investigating exactly how this radiation affects our bodies is difficult because it's hard to isolate the factors (though a lot of work is being done on theories that heavy mobile phone use could cause brain cancers; the jury is out).

But take for instance the effect on sperm. Given the long list of factors that can affect its quality, theoretically, any man with sperm problems could have been primarily affected by completely different things. In one case, it might be smoking, in another, a predilection for tight underwear and in a third, exposure to certain chemicals. Or all the above.

This study was exceptional in being done on men, not in test tubes or on rats; and for its effort to weed out other influences ("confounding factors") on sperm, for instance only choosing men who didn't have heavy smoking habits, Dirnfeld explained.

Knowledge of their habits was  gained from questionnaires and, with the data in hand, the researchers tested the connection between the men's mobile phone habits and sperm quality. The findings were striking. Talking on the cellphone for over an hour a day, or with the phone connected to the charger, nearly doubled the concentration of abnormal semen, from almost 36 percent to almost 61 percent.

Sperm concentration also dropped to abnormal levels in men who carried the phone less than 50 cm from the groin: a little over 47 percent of them were found to have abnormal concentrations of sperm, compared with just 11.1 percent in the total male population.

Other studies have shown cause for concern, even if they were less rigorous in their methodology. In 2013, the Washington-based Environmental Working Group reported tracking down 10 human studies that identified "a startling variety of changes in sperm" exposed to cell phone radiation. "Men who carried their phones in a pocket or on the belt were more likely to have lower sperm counts and/or more inactive or less mobile sperm," EWG wrote, a finding supported by the Israeli team.

Using a Bluetooth while keeping one's phone in one's pocket does not solve the problem, though it does help if the phone is not near one's gonads.

 “In light of the research findings it is certainly recommended to shorten the duration of calls, not to carry the phone near the groin, not to sleep next to it, not to talk while it is being charged (in fact, it is better to turn it off while it is being charged) and to use a headset or hands-free kit whenever possible,” as long as the phone isn't in the pocket, sums up Dr. Ariel Silberlicht, a gynecologist at Carmel Medical Center and a faculty member at the Technion Faculty of Medicine. But given the small sample size, a key point is the researchers' urging that more studies be done, on larger samples.