Is Your Smartphone Affecting Your Swimmers?

The original cell phone
Where is all began: The “brick” cell phone (Courtesy: unsplash)

How much do you know about your cellphone? Did you know that the first cell phone call ever made was in 1973 on a 2.2 lb. Motorola? The first cell phone was released to the market in 1984 at a cost of $4,000, with a battery life of only 30 minutes. Currently, there are more cell phones in America (>400 million) than people and there are more than 1 million apps available. With all their addictive features and computing power, it’s no wonder there’s a word to describe mobile phone addiction: nomophobia.

But do cell phones affect male fertility?

Radiation Primer

The issue at stake here is cell phone “radiation.” Our public opinion of radiation in general is not a healthy one, probably a consequence of Oppenheimer and the “Atomic age,” which has infused our thinking over the last century. Sure, there are forms of electromagnetic (EM) radiation that are truly “radioactive” or “ionizing,” meaning that they are strong enough to ionize atoms and displace electrons from elements. These EM waves have incredibly short, high-energy wavelengths and are used to create deadly bombs, cure cancer, or take X-rays. But there is also another form of radiation with much longer wavelengths and lower energies termed radiofrequency (RF) waves which are “non-ionizing” and do not carry enough energy to break chemical bonds. In their low-, medium-, and high-frequency forms, RF waves give us AM radio, shortwave, and aviation communication. Up the RF frequency even more into the very high, super high, and ultra-high range, and we get FM radio, television broadcasting, and radar. Beyond radar are microwaves which help us warm our leftovers.

So where do cell phones and Wi-Fi live on this spectrum? Right next to the non-ionizing RF levels used for FM radio. This fact is somewhat reassuring, at least for me, and forms the basis for federal exposure limits currently in place for EM and RF radiation.


Research in the arena of cell phones and male fertility is relatively new and limited in scope. Most of it is focused on animal exposure models, laboratory-based exposures of human sperm, or human epidemiological studies that correlate real-life exposures and sperm quality. Notably, the holy grail of studies, those following subjects over time and that examine actual human fertility (i.e., making baby rates) as outcomes, are non-existent.

From animal research and human semen studies, it has been variably and inconsistently observed that cell phone exposure lowers semen volume, sperm counts, shape, motility, viability, and testosterone levels (rats), and increases oxidative stress, sperm DNA fragmentation and “genomic instability.” It is not clear whether any of these findings are related to the thermal (i.e., heating) or non-thermal effects of RF exposures. What limits the ability to accurately interpret such studies is:

  • a) the unclear relationship between exposure effects in animals and humans (i.e., biological complexity issue;
    b) inconsistency in the dose, duration, and frequency of RF exposures (transmitters) and the zone of exposure, shape, geometry, and orientation of the exposed object (antennas). (Termed heterogeneity in study design, the most obvious of these variables is the distance between the RF transmitter and the receiving object as RF waves dissipate dramatically with distance.);
    c) an unclear understanding of how accurately experimental and real-life exposures (pulsing and modulation) actually correlate;
    d) the inability to control for confounding environmental toxins that may have had an effect (i.e., merged harmful effects);
    e) poor assessment of actual RF absorption rates (i.e., factors such as frequency, intensity, polarization and duration of exposure);
    f) questionable clinical or real-life relevance of measured outcomes (e.g., sperm counts fall by 25% with RF exposure, but typically vary by 25% normally).

I could go on, but you get the point.

From human epidemiological studies, statistical associations have been drawn between cell phone use and sperm counts, motility, and DNA fragmentation. Effects of RF exposure on testosterone levels have been inconclusive. Most recently, a large study (n=2886) of Swiss military recruits found that sperm counts were higher among men who survey reported cell phone use only once weekly compared with those who used cell phones > 20 times daily. Interestingly, however, there was no association between carrying phones in the pants and lower semen quality. A significant weakness in this study is the “contamination” of the results by the hundreds of other, real-life variables that can affect sperm counts, including diet and lifestyle choices, stress, varicoceles, medications, recreational drug use and the like. Realize too that whether such claimed associations are truly causal or biologically linked cannot be determined from association studies. For example, just because the rates of both human infertility and cell phone use are increasing, does not necessarily mean that they are causally linked or related. Worth studying for sure, but not conclusive in any way!

In summary, there is reason to be concerned, but not alarmed, about cell phone radiation exposure and male reproductive health. And, while a considerable body of research suggests that RF waves are generally safe for the general public, excessive exposure such as with heavy cell phone use, may not be. With that said, here are some general precautions to consider:

  • Since distance from the transmitter matters, use hands-free devices or the speaker phone whenever possible, and avoid putting the phone in your front pants pocket.
  • Text instead of calling also keeps the cell phone at a greater distance from your body.
  • Cell phones only emit radiation when calling or receiving signals. To reduce exposure, limit the duration of your calls and use airplane mode (no radiation) whenever possible.
  • Dump older cell phones for newer models, as older phones have higher RF emissions.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” Energy is all around us, so let’s learn to channel it wisely.