Friday Weird Science: Forget cancer, what are cell phones doing to your SPERM!?

Jun 03 2011 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

You know, we keep hearing about things that cell phones may or may not do things. To the bees. To the risks of brain cancer. To your perceptions. To I don't know what. But it's time we focused on the IMPORTANT things, my friends.

What does a cell phone do to your SEMEN?

I mean, we know what really matters.

Your junk.

We've got lots of things we could blame for the current decrease* in male fertility. Environmental estrogens. Laptops. Porn. Cycling. I could go on. But have you looked at your...cell phone lately?

Gutschi, et al. "Impact of cell phone use on men's semen parameters" Andrologica, 2010.

Cell phones get blames for a lot. They must be coming for something. After all, the technology is NEW. It's DIFFERENT. It's something NO ONE HAS DONE BEFORE. It has to be bad for you on some level, right? Such scrutiny gets applied to technological revolutions in general when they come on the market, from nuclear energy to laptops to cell phones.

I'm not sure why cell phones get more studies of infertility done on them than, say, computers. Sure, more people CARRY cell phones, they are closer to your dangly bits. But sedentary activity can decrease sperm count, too!!! THINK OF THE WOW PLAYERS, PEOPLE!!!

(It probably took a lot of sedentary activity to make this video, despite it's hilarity and awesome. What if that hilarity and awesome from the LIFE FORCE?!!)

Anyway, what they were concerned about here was cell phones. And sperm.

And so they took a bunch of dudes at a fertility clinic (2110 in all), and asked them about their cell phone habits. They managed to get 1,119 people who DIDN'T use cell phones!!! I was impressed by this until I realized the study was a retrospective going back to 1993.

Do you guys remember cell phones in the 90s?


Because they already had semen from these guys (you get samples like that when you go for treatment at a fertility clinic), they didn't have to go through the rigamarole of the Playboy and the cup again (at least there's that). Instead, they took what they had and assessed it for testosterone, sperm count, sperm morphology (how weird they looked), and other reproductive hormones.

And here's what they got.

Uhhhhh huhhhhhh. The authors state that that is an increase in sperm with abnormal morphology in men who used cell phones. I don't want to disbelieve their statistics or anything. But. Well. I'm not what you'd call convinced here.

They got no differences in sperm count, but an increase (they say it was significant in the results, but there's no star in the tables, so I don't know what to think there) in abnormal sperm diagnoses in the cell phone using patients. Patients who used cell phones also had higher testosterone and LOWER leutenizing hormone.

The authors concluded that CELL PHONES ARE COMING FOR YOUR SPERM.

We speculate that mobile phones negatively affect sperm
quality in men and may impair male fertility. Men with
poor sperm quality planning for pregnancy should be
advised not to use cell phone extensively.

At least they just "speculated". I wouldn't be willing to make sweeping statements here.

So as you can tell I've got some problems with this study. What are they? Observe:

1) NO ONE is going to call the group of dudes they used a representative sample. They chose only men who were seeking treatment for infertility. Um...if you're seeking treatment for infertility, that sample's going to have a lot of bias. You gotta take those dudes, and compare them to random dudes on the street.

"Hello! Would you like to donate to research for treatment of male infertility? GREAT! Just sign this form here, and if you wouldn't mind putting some spunk in a cup for us...wait! Where are you going!? YOU JUST SIGNED THE IRB!!"

2) This study was retrospective. They took people they already had samples from and asked about their cell phone use, and correlated the results. There was no control for LIFESTYLE factors. For example, do people who use cell phones have more or less of an active lifestyle (a sedentary lifestyle is correlated with infertility). Does the group that uses cell phones have a higher or a lower BMI (higher BMI is correlated with infertility). Is the group that uses cell phones exposed to more stress (high stress is correlated with infertility). For the group the used cell phones, how OFTEN did they use them? Where did they keep them? What did they use them FOR? Does merely carrying an off cell phone make your sperm into sad little swimmers?

3) This study was a lifestyle perspective with samples taken from 1993-2007. A LOT MORE THAN CELL PHONES has gone down since. The internet! Laptops! ipods! Stuff! Things! Increases in obesity rates, etc, etc, etc.

4) They showed that patients who used cell phones had HIGHER testosterone AND showed more pathological spermatozoa formation. Normally, higher testosterone is an indicator of fertility, and there was no difference in sperm count. They hypothesize Leydig cell hyperplasia, but until you show me that...ehhh... Not only that, they had HIGHER testosterone and LOWER Leutenizing hormone. Leutenizing hormone levels are responsible for the production of...testosterone. So why LOW Leutenizing hormone and HIGH testosterone? I think I'm confused.

So yes. The authors admitted to many of these problems. And it's a retrospective study, so there's not a lot they could do about them.

Sci has to say she's disappointed. All of these sperm and cell phone papers (there are ten or so out there that are cited all over), are generally...kind of disappointing. Small differences. No control for other factors.

Here's what we have to do.

1) Gather men. A lot of them. Control for age, weight, lifestyle, BMI, drug and alcohol use, relationship status, etc, etc. Control for how much they sit, what kind of activities they do, la di dah. Take away their cell phones for 5 MONTHS. It takes about 130 days for sperm to completely turn over, so that should do it.

2) Take a sperm count. And some hormone levels while you're at it.

3) Give half the dudes their cell phones. Record where they carry it, how long they carry it for, and patterns of usage (the patterns of usage is probably very trackable). Do that for another 5 months.

4) Take a sperm count. And some hormone levels, while you're there.

5) Take them away again. 5 months.

6) Final sperm count.

I know. LONG study. LONG SUCKY STUDY. BUT. But it's the kind of study that will control for a baseline sperm count (not counting influences from work related electromagnetic waves or anything), control much better how much effect the cell phones HAD, and then see if it's reversible. None of this retrospective stuff.

Of also means having dudes give up their cell phones for basically 15 months (for the control group). I think we might have low volunteer numbers for this. Boo. 🙁

All right dudes. I need volunteers. Aren't you all WILLING?! Don't you want to KNOW/!!? It's for SCIENCE!!

Gutschi T, Mohamad Al-Ali B, Shamloul R, Pummer K, & Trummer H (2011). Impact of cell phone use on men's semen parameters. Andrologia PMID: 21486411

*And by decrease I mean, I hear and read about it a lot in papers. I don't actually know of studies that have shown that more men than ever are being reported infertile. Anyone got one of these? Cause I have to imagine reporting has increased recently, and there are LOADS of other possible factors for the US in particular without drawing in whether you use a cell phone...just saying.

3 responses so far

  • Jason Dick says:

    Judging by those error bars, even absent any methodological issues, there is zero evidence whatsoever of reduced fertility with cell phone use here.

    Anyway, there are huge reasons to think that this is complete nonsense, from a pure physics standpoint, because basically the only effect cell phones can realistically have on sperm is through increasing the temperature of the testicles. But given that testicle temperature is regulated by a combination of dangling and circulation of blood, well, it is extraordinarily unlikely that cell phones can have much of any effect. I, being a guy, would be completely comfortable if nobody ever bothered to waste money on what is sure to be a study that returns a null result.

  • Repeatability is another concern. This study has not been repeated by another lab and the retrospective in nature and causality can't be construed.

    Also : what she said.

  • [...] paper to look at the association between electronic use and your junk. In fact, I've covered the issue twice with cell phones and once with laptops. So I'm a little mystified why this new paper got all the [...]

Leave a Reply