Can Cell Phones Contribute to Male Infertility?

Just when you thought you were doing something good by using a hands-free cell-phone device, along comes a fertility specialist to put a damper on the party. According to a study published Sept. 19 in the online version of the journal Fertility and Sterility, men who stash their cell phones in their pockets or clip them to their belts while using an earpiece to chat may also be compromising their sperm. The study found that the radiofrequency electromagnetic waves a cell phone emits when it's in talk mode can lead to higher levels of free radicals in sperm samples from healthy men—free radicals are the rogue molecules that have been implicated in heart disease, cancer and numerous others human diseases—and to a reduction in sperm motility and viability.

In a study of 361 men published last year, Cleveland Clinic fertility specialist Ashok Agarwal, the lead author of the new study, found that there was a higher incidence of poor sperm quality among men who reported that they were heavy cell-phone users than among men who weren't. Because of the limitations of studies that rely on self-reported data, he decided to devise a follow-up lab experiment to look at what happens to sperm exposed to the frequency of radiation most often used by cell phones. Agarwal talked to NEWSWEEK's Joan Raymond about the new study and why he nonetheless keeps his phone in his pocket. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why do a study like this? I thought researchers had debunked the idea that cell-phone use is linked to human disease.
Ashok Agarwal: That's not true. We still have questions that haven't been answered. And there are still more questions to ask. This particular study was designed to examine whether exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic waves from cell phones would cause any kind of changes in human sperm. That was our central question. And one that needed to be answered.

We did a study of some 361 men that was published last year and showed that increased cell-phone use is related to a poorer quality of sperm. This was a self-reported study, and that has limitations. But there was a significant relationship between cell-phone use and sperm quality, especially among men who used [cell phones] for more than four hours per day. We wanted to find out what was going on. But you obviously can't conduct a study on humans, with a group of men that [would] be exposed to something [potentially] hazardous. So we devised a lab experiment, since animal models have a lot of limitations when it comes to studies about reproductive health.

What did the study entail?
We took sperm samples from 23 healthy men, and from nine men with known fertility issues. The samples were then divided into two portions to make a control group and a test group. We exposed the test group sperm to a cell phone in "talk" mode with a radiation of 850 megahertz, the frequency most often used by cell phones in the U.S. We selected a distance from the tube containing the test sperm samples to the cell phone that mimicked the distance from an average man's gonads to, say, a phone kept in the trouser pocket. We exposed the sperm for about one hour to see if there was any effect on the sperm quality in exposed and unexposed portions.

What markers did you look at?
We looked at several markers, including motility, viability and cellular or molecular changes.

What did you find?
There were 85 percent more free radicals generated by the exposed sperm samples in both healthy and infertile specimens versus the control group, and a 6 percent decrease in antioxidants in the exposed samples, the chemicals that fight free-radical damage. Motility, or what proportion of sperm are moving, decreased by 7 percent, and the viability, or the percentage of sperm that is alive … decreased by 11 percent. That was for both groups, the healthy men and men with fertility problems, as compared to a control group that had no exposure.

Were you surprised by this?
We were actually excited. We had some inkling that we would see some changes, but not to this extent. The exposure was not that long.

So should men chuck their earpieces, get their phones out of their pants and go buy a purse?
No. This study isn't definitive. Our preliminary results should be validated with a larger sample size. The next step is to obviously take a look at the muscles, fat and tissues that separate the testes from this exposure. We're building a very sophisticated computer model that will mimic real-time cell-phone use. Essentially, we want to re-create with a computer model exactly how men use their cell phones and how it may affect their fertility. Those answers will add to the body of knowledge.

What do you want to say to men you see who use hands-free devices and stash their phones in their pants?
I think if I went up to a man and told him he may be harming his fertility because of his cell-phone use, I'd probably get a punch in the nose. I do believe that something is going on with cell-phone use and male fertility. But we need more well-designed studies with more convincing results before we can say with certainty that cell phones hurt male fertility.

Where do you keep your cell?
In my pants pocket. But I don't use a hands-free device, so my phone is in standby mode, not talk mode, when it's in there. We're not sure if a cell phone in standby mode could cause damage to sperm because we don't know for sure the minimum amount of radiation that may induce damage to sperm cells. There are a host of things that we don't know at this time. Besides, I already have two children.