|Is there a link between mobile phone use and sperm health?
Perhaps no piece of technology in the world today has become more popular and readily available than the smartphone. According to Research NZ, in 2015, some 70 per cent of New Zealanders owned or had access to a mobile phone, which is up from the 48 per cent recorded in 2013. In fact, the jump in mobile phone ownership has risen by 46 per cent in just three years, easily making it New Zealand's most favourite device, more so than laptops and tablets.
However, even though mobile phones have revolutionised the way that we keep connected with our friends, family and work colleagues, questions have emerged that they could possibly damage sperm if kept in pockets for too long. Let's take a look and see if there is any truth to these concerns.
A mobile hazard?
The crux of the issue is that mobile phone use increases our exposure to the radio frequency electro-magnetic waves (RF-EMW), which are emitted by the devices. Initially, the worries centred around these waves having the ability to cause brain tumours and other cancers, but now the concern has turned towards the effect that they may have on men's reproductive health. Why is this? Let's take a look and see if there is any truth to these concerns."
According to Repromed's Dr Debbie Blake, there are two types of ways in which RF-EMWs can potentially exert an effect on biological tissue – these are thermal and non-thermal. Though it is widely known that an increase in heat around the testes may cause damage to sperm, the effects on non-thermal radiation are less well understood, which is why they are currently of interest to researchers right now.
In vitro studies on exposure of sperm samples to various levels of RF-EMWs have almost conclusively proven to have detrimental effects on sperm health, but it's when translating these risks to real-life usage that difficulties arise.
For example, RF-EMWs are only emitted when a phone is used for a spoken conversation, meaning that the device is relatively far away from the testes when held up to the ear. However, if a headset is used and the phone remains in the trouser pocket, closer to the testes, it's evident that it will have a greater impact on them than it would when held up high.
It's also worth bearing in mind that there can be a difference in the amount of emissions given off by different phone bands, although the majority are below 1.6 W kg-1 (SAR specific absorption rate).
A scientific approach
A study carried out by the University of Exeter examined no fewer than 1,492 sperm samples, with the end goal of finding out just how greatly mobile phone signals can affect sperm quality. The samples were measured in three different ways, and these were motility (how well the sperm can swim towards the egg) concentration (how much individual sperm is found within each unit of semen, and viability (the level of sperm that was actually alive).
Could storing a phone in trouser pockets affect men's sperm quality?
"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," said Dr Fiona Mathews, who led the study.
It was found that 50 to 85 per cent of the sperm displayed normal movement, but this proportion dipped by an average of eight percentage points when exposed to the certain signals emitted by mobiles phones. Sperm viability suffered a similar drop, but it was less apparent how RF-EMWs affected overall concentration.
"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."
One study has shown an increase in sperm DNA damage with mobile phone use which is of particular concern. What we don't know is if these changes are reversible and if multivitamin products can help to mitigate the effects of mobile phone use on sperm.
A pocket peril?
The effects appear to be greatest for men who carry their phones in their pockets, which would explain the recent spate of new articles warning of the perceived dangers of smartphone use and sperm health.
However, Repromed’s Dr Blake explains that when you cast a critical eye over these studies in a meta-analysis fashion, there is such a degree in the variation of results that it's difficult for any of them to be deemed conclusive. Even though there have been a great deal of studies published on the subject, Dr Blake is of the opinion that we should still consider overall evidence as inadequate at this stage.
However, Dr Blake did have one conclusion to draw on for now:
"Until proven, it would seem prudent to warn men to consider an alternative location to their trousers for carrying their mobile phones, especially for men diagnosed with reduced sperm quality and particularly during the three months leading up to fertility treatment."
Get in touch
with the expert team at Repromed if you're worried about any issues that there may be with yours or your partner's sperm – we'll be happy to guide you through our various programs
to ensure that it's of the highest quality.