Habits of cell phone usage and sperm quality – does it warrant attention?
Ariel Zilberlicht, Zofnat Wiener-Megnazi, Yulia Sheinfeld, Bronislava Grach, Shirly Lahav-Baratz, Martha Dirnfeld. Habits of cell phone usage and sperm quality – does it warrant attention? Reproductive BioMedicine Online, 31(3):421-426. September 2015
Male infertility constitutes 30–40% of all infertility cases. Some studies have shown a continuous decline in semen quality since the beginning of the 20th century. One postulated contributing factor is radio frequency electromagnetic radiation emitted from cell phones. This study investigates an association between characteristics of cell phone usage and semen quality.
Questionnaires accessing demographic data and characteristics of cell phone usage were completed by 106 men referred for semen analysis.
Results were analysed according to WHO 2010 criteria. Talking for ≥1 h/day and during device charging were associated with higher rates of abnormal semen concentration (60.9% versus 35.7%, P < 0.04 and 66.7% versus 35.6%, P < 0.02, respectively). Among men who reported holding their phones ≤50 cm from the groin, a non-significantly higher rate of abnormal sperm concentration was found (47.1% versus 11.1%). Multivariate analysis revealed that talking while charging the device and smoking were risk factors for abnormal sperm concentration (OR = 4.13 [95% CI 1.28–13.3], P < 0.018 and OR = 3.04 [95% CI 1.14–8.13], P < 0.027, respectively).
Our findings suggest that certain aspects of cell phone usage may bear adverse effects on sperm concentration. Investigation using large-scale studies is thus needed.
The prevalence of infertility among couples of reproductive age, defined as a failure to conceive for 12 months, is 15% (Chandra et al., 2014). In 34% of the cases, the aetiology is related to male factor (Odisho et al., 2014).
Men exposed to higher degrees of RF-EMR during their military service were found to be at higher risk (odds ratio (OR) = 1.86) of being infertile after 1 year (Baste et al., 2008). Another study found a higher rate of reduced semen quality after occupational exposure to electromagnetic fields (OR = 3.22) (Irgens et al., 1999). However, the above-mentioned studies did not sufficiently take into account the many possibly confounding factors such as lifestyle, demographic characteristics, aspects of device usage and occupational and health background.
A multivariate logistic regression analysis revealed that two variables, talking while the device is being charged and smoking, were associated with increased risk for abnormal sperm concentration (OR = 4.13 [95% CI 1.28–13.3], P < 0.018 and OR = 3.04 [95% CI 1.14–8.13], P < 0.027, respectively).
No association was found between other usage-related characteristics (i.e. use of accessories, talking in a low reception area) and between sperm parameters (data not shown). No associations were found between age, residential area, occupation, number of children or years of education and semen parameters. The use of accessories such as hands-free devices, wired and non-wired earphones and duration of charging time were not analysed due to a small sample size.
Talking on a cell phone for more than one hour per day was associated with an elevated rate of abnormal sperm concentration. This concurs with the results of Agarwal et al., who reported that talking for a duration of more than 4 h/day on a cell phone was associated with a lower sperm count, as well as a lower number of viable sperm, motility and morphology ( Agarwal et al., 2008). Similarly, longer daily transmission time on cell phones was associated with a lower proportion of rapid progressive motile sperm ( Fejes et al., 2005).
The lack of association found between cell phone usage and sperm motility, a finding that has been demonstrated in previous studies, may be due to differences in criteria for sperm motility between WHO 1999 and 2010 manuals for reference values for semen parameters.
During charging of cell phones, two changes occur: (i) the external power source by itself emits energy; and (ii) due to the continuous supply of energy from the external source, the device transmits at a higher power, without the need for energy saving, in contrast to the usual talking mode.
Participants who constantly carry the device at a distance ≤50 cm from the groin were found to have a higher rate of abnormal sperm concentration. Although the association did not reach statistical significance, it appears that sperm parameters may be affected, even during a stand-by mode (when RF-EMR is emitted from the device for short durations). Similarly, Kilgallon and Simmons reported that men who carried a cell phone in a hip pocket or on their belts had 11% fewer motile sperm than men who kept a phone elsewhere on their body (Kilgallon and Simmons, 2005). Another study showed that men who carried a cell phone on their belt ≥6 h/day for 5 days, had a 19% drop in highly motile sperm from their previous concentrations (Davoudi et al., 2002).
Similar to this study, four other reports have used questionnaires to address cell phone usage and possible associations with sperm quality. In their assessment of 304 males, Wdowiak et al. (2007) classified and analysed the study population according to three categories of cell phone usage: non-users, sporadic users for a period of 1–2 years and regular users for >2 years. Analysis of sperm quality was also based solely on users and non-users, although in a much larger population (Gutschi et al., 2011). In the study by Agarwal et al. (2008), participants were classified by users versus non users. The user category was further subdivided according to one aspect of usage: daily talking duration (<2 2="" and="" day="" h="">4 h/day). They found that daily use ≥4 h was associated with abnormal sperm count (Agarwal et al., 2008). Fejes et al. (2005) considered three aspects of cell phone usage: duration of possession (in months), daily standby possession (in centimetres) and daily transmission time (in minutes). They reported changes in the characteristics of motile sperm, but no change in the total motility.2>
In conclusion, the findings of this study suggest that a few small changes in cell phone usage, such as avoidance of talking while it is being charged, reducing the total time of conversations and keeping the device away from the groin may be highly beneficial for men seeking fertility. From a practical point of view, men who seek fertility are advised to turn off their devices while charging or, if not possible, to keep the device at least 50 cm from the groin during daily activities and while sleeping. Users are advised to carry the device a distance from the groin, for example in the shirt pocket, and to talk using earphones or to use a speaker whenever possible. A large scale study is needed to assess these and other possible effects of cell phone usage on sperm quality.
Joel M. Moskowitz, Ph.D., Director
Center for Family and Community Health
School of Public Health
University of California, Berkeley
Electromagnetic Radiation Safety
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