Cleveland Clinic study indicates men may not want to keep cell phones in their pockets while using hands-free devices.
But researchers at the Cleveland Clinic have found that radio-frequency electromagnetic waves emitted from cell phones in talk mode may cause decreased sperm quality in men.
The study was just published by researchers at the Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute at the Cleveland Clinic in the journal Fertility and Sterility.
The study found that cell phone radiation caused the generation of significantly higher levels of free radicals in sperm cells while decreasing the amount of antioxidants found in the seminal fluid. Together, these conditions were shown to have a negative impact on the motility and viability of sperm cells.
These findings could have major implications for the millions of reproductive-age men using hands-free devices for their conversations while storing their phones in their pockets in talk mode.
"We wanted to identify why cell phone use and decreased sperm quality appear to be related, so we devised a research protocol that could be done completely in the lab, thus not harming participants while getting more objective results," said Ashok Agarwal, Ph.D., Head of the Andrology Laboratory and the Director of Center for Reproductive Medicine at the Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute, who led the study.
"We never imagined that we'd identify a causal link so clearly in our initial study design, so we're happy that this research has provided clean data to fuel future research and discussion in this area."
Dr. Agarwal's previous study, which was published in the journal Fertility and Sterility in 2007, used self-reported data from 361 subjects and found that men who used their cell phones more than four hours a day had significantly lower sperm quality than those who used their cell phones for less time. The 2007 study did not, however, identify a possible cause, so the research team set out to create a new study that would provide more insight.
In this latest study, researchers collected semen samples from 32 subjects, including nine patients and 23 healthy donors, and divided the samples into two parts to allow for both a test group and a control group. Specimens from the test group were then placed 2.5 centimeters from a 850 MHz cell phone in talk mode for 1 hour. Researchers identified this distance as being the typical distance between the testes and trouser pockets, a common place for men to store their cell phones while talking on a hands-free earpiece.
Special equipment measured and monitored the radio-frequency electromagnetic waves emitted by the phone. Then, researchers measured the levels of reactive oxygen species (harmful free radicals), total antioxidant capacity and DNA integrity of the sperm cells, and compared them to the control group.
The findings showed that cell phone radiation increased the amount of reactive oxidative stress (or free radicals) and decreased the amount of antioxidants in semen to levels that have a negative impact on the motility and viability of sperm. Measurements of the test group versus the control group revealed that cell phone radiation creates a state of oxidative stress within sperm cells that causes a significant decrease in their ability to function optimally.
There were no significant differences in the amount of DNA damage to the cells in the test group versus the control group; however, the researchers recommend further studies in this area with a larger sample size.
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Is That A Phone In Your Pocket?
A new study finds that the radiation emitted by cell phones can lower sperm quality.
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.
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.
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.