Let's just admit it: We are in deep, committed (probably co-dependent) relationships with our phones. There are many compelling reasons to limit our phone usage, from getting better sleep to preventing “tech neck.” And yes, actually making eye contact with strangers. There is also a claim that consistent exposure to mobile phone radiation could negatively impact sperm quality, potentially causing fertility issues in men. This theory has some so freaked out that a German company started manufacturing underwear that claims to absorb 98 percent of cell phone radiation and 70 percent of Wifi radiation.
So, do dudes need to be tossing or turning off their iPhones in order to remain fertile? Should you buy your partner a pager or expensive boxers for their birthday? Should we be worried about tech neck and tech...um…testicles? Since it’s Testicular Cancer Awareness Week, we looked into the latest clinical studies to get some answers.
First, let's clarify some stuff about sperm. Many important variables are taken into consideration when analyzing sperm health and its ability to fertilize eggs. For example, there's motility: the way a sperm moves and swims so it's able to reach the egg. Then, there’s viability (sometimes called vitality), the number of sperm that are alive, well, and therefore capable of fertilizing an egg. You’ve also got concentration, which is the millions of cells existing per milliliter of semen. These sperm characteristics in addition to others can be evaluated via a semen analysis, a test that's done in order to evaluate male fertility.
What science says about tadpoles and tech
One 2014 study published in the Central European Journal of Urology, suggests there is a relationship between mobile phone radiation and decreased sperm motility. The study used a small sample size of only 32 men, all of whom had healthy semen parameters and were instructed to avoid keeping their phones in their pockets for a period of two months before the experiment began.
The semen samples were then divided into two groups and one was kept in close proximity to a cell phone that was on standby mode. A call was also placed every 10 minutes. After five hours, the semen was reevaluated, and researchers concluded that long-term exposure to mobile phone radiation negatively impacts in sperm motility. The other takeaway: If men are interested in becoming fathers, they should avoid keep their cell phones in their front pants pockets.
In 2014, another study on this matter was released, this one led by the University of Exeter. This study utilized 1,492 semen samples collected from fertility clinics and research centers. 50-80 percent of the samples had normal movement, but that number fell by 8 percent when the samples were exposed to cell phone radiation. This suggests that sperm viability and overall quality deteriorates when exposed to cell phone frequencies.
The same study goes on to propose that the reason 14 percent of couples in high and middle income countries experience infertility is because so many adults now have cell phones.
It's important to note, however, that the researchers who led the Exeter study ultimately concluded that while there seems to be a correlation between sperm quality and carrying your phone in your pocket, this behavior is more likely to affect men who are on the "borderline" of infertility, such as those already dealing with issues like testicular or genetic abnormalities. The lead scientist says, "Given the enormous scale of mobile phone use around the world, the potential role of this environmental exposure needs to be clarified. This study strongly suggests that being exposed to radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation from carrying mobiles in trouser pockets negatively affects sperm quality. This could be particularly important for men already on the borderline of infertility, and further research is required to determine the full clinical implications for the general population."
What about sperm count? Sperm count is on the decline in the West overall—this 2017 study confirms this is the case. However, scientists largely remain unsure as to why. We do know that while sperm counts are plummeting in the Western world, CNN reports they are not declining in South America, Asia and Africa. Does this have to do with the use of cell phones? Not as far as we know. Neither the study nor the article suggest this. CNN notes that more likely, it has to do with environmental toxins, obesity, and factors we're not even necessarily aware of yet.
iPhones may just be a part of the issue
There's also evidence and some that believe that cell phones aren't adversely affecting sperm, or rather, that they're not the only thing that contributes to sperm quality. Dr. Sinem Karipcin, a reproductive endocrinologist at Conceptions Florida, describes the research done so far far on cell phones and sperm quality as "scarce with conflicting results." Karipcin cites a Harvard study in which the cell phone usage behaviors and semen analysis of 153 men were observed over time. The study ultimately concluded that there was no documented effect between cell phone use and male infertility. But despite this study’s finding, Karipcin does confirm that, “current research does indicate sperm quality has decreased.”
The bottom line (that ends with a question mark)
Do you need to raise an eyebrow each time you see your man slip his phone into his pocket? The answer, unfortunately, isn’t a simple “yes” or “no. The medical community isn’t totally sure how cell phones impact sperm quality. While study results suggesting that cell phone radiation negatively impacts sperm quality are there, there is still no conclusive understanding. As the Exeter study notes, more research (and larger sample sizes) are needed.
Sara Naab is the founder of TrakFertility, a fertility testing system that men can use to test their sperm counts at home and the editor of Don'tCookYourBalls.com, one of the leading online male fertility resources (with a dynamite name). Naab urges folks concerned about male fertility to remember that everyone is different and therefore, more or less sensitive to certain fertility-influencing factors.
“Ultimately, fertility is tricky—there's still a lot we don't know, and it's hard to study things that are impacting it,” she says. “You don't want to put a cell phone on someone's testicles for a month and just see what happens."
Be aware, but don’t be paranoid
Karipcin says that a number of lifestyle factors, like diet, smoking, drug and alcohol use, and stress also play a role in male fertility. Again, fertility is nuanced and multifactorial. Environmental pollutants might also play a role. For example, food containing pesticides might impact sperm quality and count. Kidney disease, liver disease, and hormonal imbalances can also influence fertility. "Even getting the flu within three months of a semen analysis test can give a man abnormal results," says Karipcin. She adds that inactive ingredients in prescription or over-the-counter medications can sometimes negatively impact sperm production, too.
In addition to taking care of one's overall health, which will help everyone take steps towards improved fertility, Naab stresses that people need to be reasonable.
"You don't need to be paranoid,” she advises. “You can make subtle changes in your habits—maybe don't put your phone in your front pocket and be more aware. We could live our lives in total fear, but there's a trade off between risk and action."