Friday Weird Science: I hope you like your sperm, and your cell phones, "neat"

May 06 2011 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

Ok, really today's post isn't about that. But it's definitely the one major thing I took away from this paper. This post is actually about the effects of cell phones on semen. But refer to your semen as "neat" once, and well, it sticks with you.

(These scientists like their semen the way they like their whiskey. Neat. Source, via Creative Commons License).

Agarwal et al. "Effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic waves (RF-EMW) on human ejaculated semen: an in vitro pilot study" Fertility and Sterility, 2009.

You all may be aware that I've posted on cell phones before. People are very nervous about their electronics (even as we love them, oh yes, yes we do), and the potential effects that constantly carrying them on our persons could have. Could our cell phones cause brain cancer? (answer, we don't know, no one has shown anything before or against yet). Could they cause ear cancer? How about jaw cancer? Throat cancer? Hand cancer?

And then, of course, the REALLY important question: what will the cell phone do to your junk?

(There's some junk below the fold. You were warned)

We have been worried about cell phones for some time. After all, people tend to carry cells phones, which emit radiofrequency electromagnetic waves when turned on, in areas...close to the family jewels. After all, most guys keep the phone in their pocket. And it can't be the back pocket because then you'll sit on it. That leaves the front pocket. And what's near your front pocket? Your scrote, obviously.

Due to all of the worry, there have been many surveys conducted on male fertility and cell phone use. There has been a recent decrease in male fertility in the US, and a recent increase in cell phone use, so you mgiht guess that correlations have been found between cell phone use and infertility. But remember, correlation is NOT causation. There are loads of other things we're doing, things we're eating, laptops we're siting with, etc, etc, that we never used so much before. To get a better idea, what you really need to do here is enroll a bunch of people in a study who don't use cell phones and never have. And you need to test their fertility. In today's world, getting people with no cell phones who are willing to give you a semen sample is a tougher call than you might think.

Obviously several animal studies have been done, but it's tough to really get an accurate picture with an animal study in this case. For example, most animals are a lot smaller than humans, and so the percentage of the body exposed to the cell phone radiation is going to be higher. Also, the human testicles are suspended much lower than most mammalian testicles, so temperature differences will apply.

So, animal models are flawed, and finding dudes who don't use cells phones is hard.

Time for semen in a cup. The authors of this study took a bunch of men with normal fertility, and a bunch with infertility, and collected semen samples. Neat, of course.

The "neat" I'm referring to here isn't "oh, neat!" (like cool or interesting), but rather the opposite of having something "on the rocks". In drinks terms, "on the rocks" is on ice, and "neat" is straight up. And the scientists didn't want to be putting the semen on the rocks, as the temperature would probably hinder what they were looking at. But really, did they have to say "neat" semen? Why not room temperature or undiluted or something?

Anyway, they took semen samples, kept them "neat". Each sample was divided into two, one half left sitting, and the other half exposed to cell phone waves from a Sony Ericsson put in "talk" mode (so I guess this would be like if you were using a handsfree and kept the phone in your pocket). The cell phone was carefully held 2.5 cm from the semen (because of COURSE that's how far you keep your cell phone from your semen, right?) for an hour. They then checked the semen for sperm concentration, the mobility of the sperm, evidence of DNA damage, and reactive oxygen species. Most of that is self-explanatory, but the reactive oxygen species (or ROSs, which usually make me think of this instead) are naturally occurring products of cell processes, but they increase drastically in times of environmental stress, and high levels of them can cause cellular damage. This is bad news for sperm, so high levels of ROSs could indicate potential damage to the little swimmers.

So. Got your semen (neat). Got your cell phone. The results? While there was no difference between the cell phone exposed and non-exposed semen (neat) in sperm count, the motility of the sperm exposed to the cell phone was lower than those that weren't exposed. Little swimmers weren't swimming so good. Similarly, the viability of the sperm was lower, there were fewer that were alive and kicking. There were no differences in DNA damage, but there WERE higher levels of ROSs in the semen exposed to the cell phones.

The obvious inference here is that the high levels of ROSs may be contributing to the decrease in sperm motility and viability following cell phone exposure. But why? The authors don't know, but they propose a mechanism where the radiofrequency electromagnetic waves impact the leukocytes of the semen. Leukocytes are cells of the immune system. Though they defend our bodies from lots of types of infections, they can also cause inflammation and local cell death, and the authors hypothesize that the radiofrequency waves from the cell phones may be impacting the leukocytes in some way.

Sci isn't so sure about that one. Sure it's a plausible mechanism. But they ARE holding the cell phone 2.5 CENTIMETERS away from the semen. Cell phones produce heat, couldn't that have an effect on some of the sperm motility? Also, are leukocytes the only possible example? I think there are many ways that ROS levels could decrease sperm motility, including actions on the sperm themselves. But I'd go ahead and check temperature first (sigh...we all know cell phones emit heat, why doesn't ANYONE check temp!?). And what does this mean for the semen in your BODY? Well, no one really knows. While the animal studies were definitely flaws, I'm not so sure this is any better.

So does this mean that having your cell phone in your pants is inherently a bad thing for your semen? Well...possibly. But in this case, the phone would have to be on and busy for more than 60 min, and it would also have to be 2.5 cm from your semen. So the moral of this story is: don't put your semen in a dish and put a cell phone on it. It might be bad for it.

Agarwal, A., Desai, N., Makker, K., Varghese, A., Mouradi, R., Sabanegh, E., & Sharma, R. (2009). Effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic waves (RF-EMW) from cellular phones on human ejaculated semen: an in vitro pilot study Fertility and Sterility, 92 (4), 1318-1325 DOI: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2008.08.022

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