Boxer Rebellion: A Pocketed Cellphone May Be Behind Your Infertility

Radiation-shielding underwear
Man wears Belly Armor's new radiation-shielding underwear. Images via Belly Armor

As soon as they buy a new cellphone, most people tend to ravenously rip the device from its wrapping, cast the accessories and directions aside and begin getting to know the gadget that will never leave their side.

But within that discarded handbook lurks some important information. For instance, in the iPhone 5 manual it reads, "carry iPhone at least 10mm (about 0.39 inches) away from your body to ensure exposure levels [to radio frequency] remain at or below the as-tested levels."

Yes, you read that right. The object that billions of people around the world hold to their face to make calls or place in their pocket when not in use emits radio frequency energy, which is considered a potential health hazard. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled radio frequency electromagnetic fields a "possible carcinogen" in 2011 after studies showed a correlation between exposure and long-term health effects, particularly a type of brain cancer. The science behind causation, however, is still considered inconclusive.

"With fertility, the verdict isn't out anymore," contended Michael Lam in an interview with Newsweek. Lam is the co-founder of Belly Armor, a company that got its start in 2009 making maternity, prenatal and nursing products out of a silver conductive textile. In September, the company expanded their products into the world of male fertility by launching a radiation-shielding boxer brief for men.

The makers of radiation-shielding underwear claim it protects men where they want it most. Image via Belly Armor.

The underwear, which is specifically targeted to men trying to conceive, costs about $50 a pair due to the high cost of silver fabric.

"The reason that we do silver is that it's one of the most conductive metals," Lam said. "It's biologically safe—it's not like other conductive metals that can be harmful to you—and the fabric has the same shielding effect as a quarter inch thick sheet of aluminum." The fabric, he claims, is able to shield 99.9 percent of everyday radiation, from 10 megahertz up to 8 gigahertz, which covers all cellular and wireless technology.

"With sperm, we really understand a lot better what the effect is because sperm is easy to quantify; you can count the sperm, you can measure how fast it is, you can look at the morphology of it, and you can get sort of immediate feedback," Lam said.

Lam's conclusions are based on numerous studies conducted in the last decade that suggest radio frequency exposure from wireless devices may be associated with reduced sperm count, reduced sperm motility, damaged sperm DNA, altered sperm cell structure and increased erectile dysfunction.

One of the studies, cited by multiple fertility specialists, took place in 2007. A group of 16 rats were exposed to two three-hour periods of daily cellphone emissions for 18 weeks. Sperm extracted from the experimental group of rats showed that the majority of their sperm cells were dead, whereas most of the control group's sperm cells were alive. The experimental group's sperm also presented a slightly higher rate of deformities and were more prone to clumping.

"While men are not would certainly make sense to avoid exposing your testicles to any kind of radiation," Dr. Marc Goldstein, a Matthew P. Hardy Distinguished Professor of Reproductive Medicine, and Urology, said in an interview with Newsweek. "The testes we know are exquisitely sensitive to the effects of radiation, like the type used in X-rays for radiation therapy, even very low doses have a negative effect."

"That's because the cells in the testicles manufacture sperm at a rate of about a thousand every heartbeat. So any cells that rapidly divide are especially sensitive to external toxic chemicals. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy, for example, are used against cancer cells which are the most rapidly dividing cells of all. Next to the cancers, the testicular cells are the most rapidly dividing in the human, male or female. "

So if studies show an increase in cellphone exposure may be linked to a slew of negative health effects, why isn't this information being shouted from the rooftops?

"I think there's a lot of fear of scaring people unnecessarily and it also just takes time for the fundamental research to percolate through to practicing doctors, to practitioners," Lam said. "But the truth of the science is coming out."

Lam asserts that the bulk of the wireless radiation research is funded by the telecom industry, as was the case with tobacco when research about health risks associated with smoking was funded by tobacco companies prior to the biological repercussions becoming well-known. "With every health risk there's been, there's always a lag between when the science gets there, when public awareness gets there, and when public policy gets there," he said.

Though the science behind mobile phones' impact on male fertility is complicated, Lam claims that the science behind his product is "as simple as a sheet of metal" and as such, the underwear mostly reflects, and partially absorbs cellphone radiation. The absorbed radiation, he says, is converted into a temperature change "of not even half a degree."

While many doctors will advise patients having fertility issues to move their cellphones out of their front pockets, doctors seem skeptical about the underwear's claims.

"Maybe there would be some benefit," Goldstein said, "But if the underwear also makes your testicles too hot and doesn't allow them to breathe very well…that may counteract the benefits of not exposing them to cellphone radiation."

Dr. Natan Bar-Chama, the director of the Center of Male Reproductive Health at RMA of New York, has some concerns of his own. "I don't think any underwear is going to heat up the testicles to the point where it is body temperature [testicles are meant to stay two degrees lower than body temperature]," he told Newsweek. "Surface skin temperature does not reflect what is going on inside the testicle." But he is also doubtful that the underwear's silver material works.

WHO advises against using commercial devices to reduce radio frequency field exposure, like lead stickers that claim to absorb radiation, saying they have not been shown to be effective. Instead, the organization suggests, "in addition to using 'hands-free devices,' which keep mobile phones away from the head and body during phone calls, exposure is also reduced by limiting the number and length of calls. Using the phone in areas of good reception also decreases exposure as it allows the phone to transmit at reduced power."

Lam says, however, that his company is hurt by other products' false scientific claims that have led to such statements from WHO. Newsweek reached out to the company's textile adviser at Hong Kong Polytechnic University to further discuss how the fabric works, but he could not be reached by time of publication.

Nonetheless, with 12 percent of married women having trouble conceiving according to a 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lam says there is a niche market for his product.

"We sold out our first production run within our first week of launching of almost every size," Lam said. " I think there are people out there that are informed about this….and another set of people we are educating."