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Mobile Technology and Human Fertility: A Heated Debate
[Note: This is the last publicly-available chapter of Cybertraps for Expecting Moms & Dads. To read later chapters of this book, future publications, and stay up to date on Cybertraps developments, click on the button below.]
Few people today would argue that technology has been anything other than a blessing to expecting moms and dads. In vitro fertilization has helped thousands of infertile couples start a family; for the last fifty years, electronic fetal monitors have provided physicians with critical information about the health of the fetus during delivery; sonograms provide a precious first glimpse of new life and valuable data throughout pregnancy; wireless monitors now give mothers more mobility during labor; the list goes on and on. [1.1]
But for all of the benefits bestowed by technological innovation, the unfortunate reality is that those innovations also present us with unexpected challenges and unintended consequences. Portable music players, for instance, have enabled us to take our own personal music libraries with us wherever we go but those same devices are blamed for a rise in hearing loss among even casual users. [1.2] Many of the most popular personal tech devices on the market today have been linked to claims of environmental damage or the use of child labor in overseas factories. [1.3] And no one really foresaw that teens would use cell phones to bully other teens or take nude photos of themselves. We can now add to that list the increasingly pressing question of whether our obsession with mobile devices, particularly smartphones, makes it less likely that we can or will have children.
Without question, no recently-invented device has infused itself into our daily lives as thoroughly as the cell phone. Although mobile phones were first developed in the early 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that consumer use of the technology really took off. According to statistics compiled by CITA — The Wireless Association, a mobile industry trade group, there were just 3.5 million cell phone subscribers in the United States at the beginning of 1990. By the end of the decade, there were roughly 86 million subscribers, or nearly 30 times as many. [1.4] Today, approximately 260 million people [1.5] and of those, more than 190 million are using a smartphone. [1.6]
It’s not terribly surprising that smartphones have become so incredibly popular. A single device that can fit in our pocket now allows us to keep in touch with family and friends, take photographs, shoot high-quality video, read books, play music, navigate through the world, look up an endless amount of information, and stay up to date on the latest news. Given the tremendous versatility of these devices, it’s also no great shock that people are spending an enormous amount of time with their smartphones each day. In a 2013 study conducted by the research firm IDC for Facebook, for instance, 63% of smartphone owners reported carrying their device or keeping it near them all but one hour of their waking day. Nearly 80% put the within-arms-reach estimate at all but two hours. When respondents were asked how this made them feel, the overwhelming response was “connected.” That makes sense, given the fact that the primary use of the devices — more than two hours each day — is to communicate with others in some fashion — text, email, social media, and occasionally (just 16% of the time), by voice. [1.7]
Predictably, cell phone use by millennials is particularly intense. IDC found that among 18-24 year olds, 9 out of 10 reach for their phone with 15 minutes of first waking up. [1.8] More recently, the Pew Research Center found that 83% percent of 18-29 year olds report turning their phones off “rarely” or “never.” [1.9]
Given the fact that an estimated 5 billion people around the world today are cell phone subscribers, and given the steady increases in the amount of time these devices are used each day in close proximity to our bodies, scientists are naturally eager to determine whether cell phone technology poses any health risk to humans. If so, the potential costs, both personal and global, are tremendous. It didn’t take long for researchers to start sounding alarms that the design and operation of cell phones might be causing unanticipated health issues for users. To better understand this intense debate, it is helpful to have a basic idea of how cell phones actually work.
All cell phones use radio-frequency (RF) waves to transmit voice and data from the handset to the nearest cell tower or WiFi receiver. RF waves are a form of electromagnetic energy with frequencies that fall between FM radio on the low end and microwaves on the high end. This type of energy is not generally considered to be harmful; it is typically described as non-ionizing radiation, i.e., a type of radiation not powerful enough (we are fairly sure) to cause health problems such as cancer by penetrating our cells and altering our DNA. By contrast, more powerful types of radiation, such as X-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet light, have well-documented and highly negative effects on human cells, and are collectively referred to as ionizing radiation. [1.10]
During the course of a phone conversation, the antenna in your cell phone generates RF waves to transmit your voice to the nearest cell tower. Those RF waves move out from your phone in an omni-directional fashion, which means that some RF waves are inevitably traveling through your head and being absorbed by your body. That is one reason, for instance, that some health professionals strongly recommend the use of ear buds. For each cell phone or smartphone on the market, scientists calculate what is known as the specific absorption rate for the device, i.e., the number of watts absorbed per kilogram of human tissue (W/kg). The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the use of cell phones in the United States, has ruled that a cell phone may not have a specific absorption rate in excess of 1.6 W/kg; the European Union has a slightly higher threshold of 2.0 W/kg. [1.11]
As the American Cancer Society puts it, RF radiation is just strong enough to “to get atoms in a molecule a little bit excited and to cause them to vibrate,” but not strong enough to either alter the atoms themselves or break apart the molecules in our cells. However, quantity matters; with sufficient amounts of RF radiation, it is possible to generate heat in various substances by causing the water molecules in those substances to vibrate so rapidly that they heat up their surroundings. That is precisely how a microwave works to cook or reheat beverages and food. The energy generated by the average cell phone handset causes minimal heating of the tissue near the handset, but scientists are still conducting research to determine the biological effects of repeated heating of the same tissue or long-term exposure of human tissue to low-level but persistent increases in heat. [1.12]
The amount of power used by your handset to generate the necessary RF waves is generally modest but not constant; the level ebbs and flows over the course of the day. There are a number of different factors that come into play. For instance, different models of phones use different levels of RF energy and have different SAR values; among other things, you might want to research and compare SAR values when you are shopping for a new phone. If you are using your phone in a congested area where lots of other conversations are taking place (an airport, for instance, or Grand Central Station), the handset will need to use more power to transmit. Similarly, the power required to carry your communication increases the farther you are from the nearest cell tower, or if there is some sort of barrier between you and the cell tower. You may have noticed, for instance, that your battery drains more quickly when the phone is attempting to connect in a remote area or from the inside of a building.
The amount of RF energy generated by your phone drops significantly when you are not using it to talk to someone or surf the Web, but it does not stop altogether. Even when your phone is in “standby” mode, i.e., simply waiting for a call, it is still communicating with the nearest cell phone tower to let your cellular service provider know where to find you so that calls can be routed to your handset. Those ongoing pings between handsets and cell towers, incidentally, offer a remarkably detailed record of your movements over the course of a day; it is information that can be of great interest and use to law enforcement during a criminal investigation. The only way to eliminate RF waves altogether is to shut your phone down completely and leave it off.
What particularly concerns medical researchers is the fact that cell phones and smartphones spend the bulk of each day in one of two locations: Either pressed up against your head during a call, or resting near your groin, since cell phones are most commonly carried in a front pants pocket or a purse. That means that the RF waves generated by these devices routinely pass through two particularly sensitive parts of our bodies: our brains and our reproductive organs.
The debate over whether cell phones cause cancer or other significant health problems is long-running, contentious, and generally beyond the scope of this book. The Web is peppered with sites that offer grim assessments of the gruesome illnesses cause by cell phones, electromagnetic radiation, cell phone towers, etc. However, the general scientific consensus so far seems to be that cell phones do not cause brain tumors or other forms of cancer in our heads.
One of the earlier studies of the effects of RF radiation, published in 1999, was largely dismissive of any negative effects:
The epidemiological evidence for an association between RF radiation and cancer is found to be weak and inconsistent, the laboratory studies generally do not suggest that cell phone RF radiation has genotoxic or epigenetic activity, and a cell phone RF radiation-cancer connection is found to be physically implausible. Overall, the existing evidence for a causal relationship between RF radiation from cell phones and cancer is found to be weak to nonexistent. [1.13]
Much more recently, an extensive study of data from a 29-year period in Australia found that despite a sharp increase in cell phone usage across the continent, approaching 90% of Australians, there has been no corresponding increase in the incidence of brain cancer. [1.14] While we can all breathe easier that our beloved smartphones are probably not going to turn our brains into Swiss cheese, that does not mean that smartphones are completely off the hook when it comes to deleterious health effects. The data regarding the effects of RF radiation on human fertility — particularly for men — are far more equivocal and worrisome.
Impact of RF Radiation on Female Fertility
One would think, given the profound importance of the female reproductive system to the perpetuation of the human species, that any potential threat to the functioning of that system would be thoroughly and intensively examined. And generally speaking, that does happen; The Guardian reported last year that U.S. specialists in female fertility outnumber those specializing in men by five to one. [1.15] Remarkably enough, however, when it comes to cell phones, it appears that the opposite is true.
In an article dated April 2, 2014, Parenting asked an important question: “Do Cell Phones Harm Female Fertility?” The answer was chilling: “As scary as it may be to consider that such things could affect female fertility,” Victoria Georgoff wrote, “the fact is we just don’t know yet.” She put the blame for the lack of answers on the unprecedented levels of device use, the brief period of time during which these devices have been used, and the fact that unlike men, the female reproductive organs are in the center of the body rather than dangling outside. [1.16]
We’ll get to the dangling bits in a minute, but Georgoff’s initial explanations are simply not adequate excuses. If anything, the unprecedented levels of device usage by women should be a powerful incentive for much more research in this area. Moreover, significant numbers of women have been using cell phones for at least twenty years, and some for much longer than that. While it can take years for meaningful health data to emerge from the background noise and statistical clutter generated by millions of individual human decisions, it does seem like more of an effort should be made to figure out if cell phones are posing a threat to the ability of women to bear children.
Another area that deserves careful study is the possible connection between cell phones and breast cancer. A study published in 2013 chronicled four cases of women, ages 21 to 39, who developed tumors in their breasts in the same location in which they carried a cell phone tucked into their bra for hours every day over a period of years. All four had no other known breast cancer risks. As the authors put it, “[t]hese cases raise awareness to the lack of safety data of prolonged direct contact with cellular phones.” [1.17]
Obviously, while breast cancer does not have a direct impact on a woman’s ability to conceive or bear a child, some of the side-effects to cancer treatment can interfere with both.
Impact of RF Radiation on Male Fertility
Make of it what you will, but there is no lack of research or scientific literature about the potential effects of cell phone RF radiation on the male reproductive system. Some readers may attribute the focus on men to mere sexism; given the apparent disparity in research levels in this area, it’s hard not to have some sympathy for that point of view. Clearly, more balanced levels of research are needed.
There may be many reasons for the disparity in research expenditures, but here is perhaps the most significant: There is growing evidence that men around the world have been experiencing a significant and deeply troubling decline in fertility over the last several decades. There are three key components to male fertility: the number of sperm a man produces, the health of the sperm (the extent to which it is free from defect or deformity), and sperm motility (the ability of sperm to wiggle their way from the back of the vagina through the uterus and on to the fallopian tubes). If any one of those components is substandard, a man’s fertility is compromised; the more damage to each aspect of sperm health, the less likely it is that the man can father a child.
In 1992, a paper published in the British Medical Journal concluded that over a fifty year period, the concentration of sperm in collected samples had fallen by half, from 113 million sperm per milliliter to 66 million. [1.18] Similarly, in 2012, Israeli sperm banks reported that over a ten-year period, the number of donors meeting their fertility standards dropped from 1 in 10 to 1 in 100, due to issues with both quantity of sperm and motility. [1.19] Most recently, a team of French researchers at the Institut de Veille Sanitaire, St Maurice, conducted a study of 26,000 men from 1989 to 2005; their examination of sperm samples showed that the number of sperm in the samples had dropped by over a third during that period. The researchers also found that on average, the collected sperm samples
showed a similar decline in the percentage of healthy or normally formed sperm. [1.20]
As with the sudden and sharp rise in bumble bee mortality, it’s one thing to identify a problem in male sperm health and another thing to explain it. A variety of different causes have been postulated, ranging from the overheating effects of tightie-whities to excessive levels of lead in the environment to the potent petrochemical cocktail that surrounds us every day. One of the leading suspects in that latter medical drama, according to researchers in Copenhagen, is a class of chemicals known as pthlates, which are used to make plastics more flexible and less prone to breakage. [1.21]
For more than a decade, some researchers have speculated that cell phone technology may be exacerbating the problem. In 2004, researchers at the University of Szeged, Hungary presented findings that suggested that RF radiation from a cell phone could cut the number of healthy sperm in a man by a third. [1.22] Similar findings were reported in 2005 by the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom, in 2008 in the journal Fertility & Sterility, in 2011 by researchers at Queen’s University in Canada, in 2014 by researchers at the University of Exeter in the U.K., and most recently by a team at Haifa University in Israel. [1.23]
While these studies all concluded that there appeared to be some connection between cell phone use and damage to sperm, there is less consensus as to how exactly mobile devices are contributing to the problem. Some researchers believe that sperm, which are particularly delicate cells, can be harmed by electromagnetic radiation in general and RF radiation in particular; others pointed to the heating effects of RF radiation or the heat generated by cell phones during their normal operation. According to medical experts, testicles hang outside the male body because the optimum temperature for sperm production is 1 to 2° C below the typical body core temperature of 37° C. Men who are trying to conceive with their partner are routinely advised to avoid hot tubs and heated car seats [1.24], and now some physicians are recommending that men keep cell phones away from their reproductive factories as well.
It’s important to keep in mind that this is a topic that is still hotly debated. As one scientist sarcastically wrote following the latest doom-and-gloom study last winter, “No, cell phones are not ‘cooking men’s sperm.’” [1.25] Even if sperm quantity and quality is declining worldwide, there are undoubtedly multiple causes and cell phones may only be a tiny part of the problem. The only thing that we know for certain is that we are running a massive experiment on ourselves and we won’t know the outcome for years.
In the interim, if you are worried, then consult a fertility specialist, think about keeping your phone as far away from your body as is practical, and perhaps give some thought to purchasing some anti-radiation boxer shorts on Amazon — just $90 a pair but hey, what price fertility?
As I discuss later in the book (see Chapter 8), laptop computers are chiefly an issue for pregnant women to consider, both in terms of the heat they produce and the radiation that they emit. However, given the sensitivity of sperm cells to increases in heat, laptops do appear may pose a threat to male fertility. In a study led by Dr. Yefim Sheynkin, a urologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, researchers found that when men use a laptop as designed — on their laps — the temperature of their scrotum quickly rises to levels that are unhealthy for sperm. Remarkably, research shows that damage to sperm can occur when testicular temperatures rise as little as 1° Celsius. Dr. Sheynkin conceded that no one had specifically researched the impact of laptop use on male fertility, but noted that he and his researchers had measured testicular temperature increases by laptop users as high as 2.5° Celsius. [1.26]
The only foolproof solution, researchers said, was to put laptop computers on a desk. While lap pads do keep laptop computers cooler, they don’t do much to prevent overheating of the testicles, particular when men keep their legs together. Actually, the much-reviled “manspreading” may have a biological value; by keeping the legs apart while using a laptop computer, a man can slow the heating process. However, researchers said, dangerous levels of heat still occurred within as little as 30 minutes. [1.27]
Note 1.1 – It is fair to point out, of course, that some believe that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. For instance, midwives frequently argue that much of the technology used during labor is unnecessary, overly expensive, and possibly harmful (at least emotionally if not physically). See, e.g., Marsden Wagner, MD, “Technology in Birth: First Do No Harm,” Midwifery Today, 2000 [ last accessed on 22 June 2016 at https://www.midwiferytoday.com/articles/technologyinbirth.asp ].
Note 1.2 – Sara J. Martinez, “How the iPod and Other Audio Devices Are Destroying Your Ears,” The Atlantic, December 15, 2011 [ last accessed on 23 June 2016 at http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/12/how-the-
Note 1.3 – See, e.g., “Environmental Issues,” The Carnegie Cyber Academy,
[n.d.] [ last accessed on 23 June 2016 at
http://www.carnegiecyberacademy.com/facultyPages/environment/issues.html ]; Jane Wakefield, “Apple, Samsung and Sony face child labour claims,” BBC News, January 19, 2016 [ last accessed on 23 June 2016 at http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35311456 ].
Note 1.4 – “Cell Phone Subscribers in the U.S., 1985–2010,” InfoPlease.com,
[n.d.] (quoting CTIA — The Wireless Association) [ last accessed on 22
June 2016 at http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0933563.html ].
Note 1.5 – “Number of mobile phone users in the U.S. from 2012 to 2019 (in
millions),” Statista, 2016 [ last accessed on 22 June 2016 at http://www.statista.com/statistics/222306/forecast-of-smartphone-users-in-the-us/ ].
Note 1.6 – “Number of smartphone users in the United States from 2010 to 2019 (in millions)*,” Statista, 2016 [ last accessed on 22 June 2016 at http://www.statista.com/statistics/201182/forecast-of-smartphone-users-in-the-us/ ].
Note 1.7 – “Always Connected: How Smartphones and Social Keep Us Engaged,” IDC, March 2013 [ last accessed on 23 June 2016 at http://www.fredericklane.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/2013-IDC_Facebook_Always-Connected.pdf ].
Note 1.8 – Id.
Note 1.9 – Lee Rainie and Kathryn Zickuhr, “Chapter One: Always on Connectivity,” from Pew Research Center’s “Americans’Views on Mobile Etiquette,” August 26, 2015 [ last accessed on 23 June 2016 at http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/26/chapter-1-always-on-connectivity/ ].
Note 1.10 – “Cellular Phones,” American Cancer Society, [n.d.] [ last accessed on 23 June 2016 at http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/cellular-phones ].
Note 1.11 – “SAR Values,” S21, March 12, 2016 [ last accessed on 25 June 2016 at http://www.s21.com/sar.htm ]. The article also has one of the more comprehensive listings of the SAR values for the leading models of cell phones.
Note 1.12 – “Microwaves, Radio Waves, and Other Types of Radiofrequency Radiation,” American Cancer Society, May 31, 2016 [ last accessed on 25 June 2016 at http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/radiationexposureandcancer/radiofrequency-radiation ].
Note 1.13 – Moulder JE, Erdreich LS, Malyapa RS, Merritt J, Pickard WF, Vijayalaxmi, “Cell phones and cancer: what is the evidence for a connection?” Radiation Research, May 1999 [ last accessed on 25 June 2016 at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10319725 ].
Note 1.14 – Simon Chapman, Lamiae Azizi, Qingwei Luo, Freddy Sitas, “Has the incidence of brain cancer risen in Australia since the introduction of mobile phones 29 years ago?” Cancer Epidemiology, June 2016 [ last accessed on 25 June 2016 at http://www.cancerepidemiology.net/article/S1877-7821(16)30050-9/abstract ].
Note 1.15 – Ally Fogg, “Men don’t worry about their sperm count – but they should,” The Guardian, March 31, 2015 [ last accessed on 25 June 2016 at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/31/sperm-count-worry-male-fertility-crisis ].
Note 1.16 – Victoria Georgoff, “Do Cell Phones Harm Female Fertility?” Parenting, April 2, 2014 [ last accessed on 25 June 2016 at http://www.parenting.com/fertility/infertility/do-cell-phones-harm-female-fertility ].
Note 1.17 – John G. West, Nimmi S. Kapoor, Shu-Yuan Liao, June W. Chen, Lisa Bailey, and Robert A. Nagourney, “Multifocal Breast Cancer in Young Women with Prolonged Contact between Their Breasts and Their Cellular Phones,” Case Reports in Medicine, 2013 [ last accessed on 25 June 2016 at http://www.hindawi.com/journals/crim/2013/354682/ ].
Note 1.18 – Katharine Gammon, “Sperm Quality & Quantity Declining, Mounting Evidence Suggests,” Live Science, August 28, 2012 [ last accessed on 25 June 2016 at http://www.livescience.com/22694-global-sperm-count-decline.html ].
Note 1.19 – Edmund Saunders, “Israel sperm banks find quality is plummeting,” Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2012 [ last accessed on 25 June 2016 at http://articles.latimes.com/2012/aug/15/world/la-fg-israel-sperm-20120816 ].
Note 1.20 – Jeremy Laurence, “Scientists warn of sperm count crisis,” Independent, December 5, 2012 [ last accessed on 25 June 2016 at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/scientists-warn-of-sperm-count-crisis-8382449.html ].
Note 1.21 – Joe Millis, “Sperm count: Fertility in men on the decline due to everyday plastics say scientists,” International Business Times, June 18, 2015 [ last accessed on 26 June 2016 at http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/sperm-count-fertility-men-decline-due-everyday-plastics-say-scientists-1506746 ].
Note 1.22 – Caroline Ryan, “Mobiles ‘could cut male fertility,’” BBC News, June 27, 2004 [ last accessed on 26 June 2016 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3844871.stm ].
Note 1.23 – Caroline McCarthy, “Chat on cell phone, become infertile?” c|net, October 24, 2006 [ last accessed on 26 June 2016 at http://www.cnet.com/news/chat-on-cell-phone-become-infertile/ ]; Tara Parker-Pope, “Good Question: Do Cellphones Affect Fertility?” New York Times, February 19, 2008 [ last accessed on 26 June 2016 at http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/19/the-inbox-cell-phones-and-sperm/ ]; “Talking on a mobile phone ‘may lower male fertility,’” Daily Mail, May 20, 2011 [ last accessed on 26 June 2016 at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1389043/Family-planning-Mobile-phone-use-lower-male-fertility.html ]; Kelly Dickerson, ”Cellphone Radiation Might Be a Drag on Sperm,“ livescience.com, June 11, 2014 [ last accessed on 26 June 2016 at http://www.livescience.com/46273-cellphone-radiation-sperm-quality.html ]; “Mobile phones are ‘cooking’ men’s sperm,” The Telegraph, February 22, 2016 [ last accessed on 26 June 2016 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/12167957/Mobile-phones-are-cooking-mens-sperm.html ].
Note 1.24 – Libby Clark, “Safeguard Your Sperm,” Men’s Health, October 5, 2010 [ last accessed on 26 June 2016 at http://www.menshealth.com/health/the-effect-of-heat-on-sperm-production ].
Note 1.25 – Orac, “No, cell phones are not ‘cooking men”s sperm,’” ScienceBlogs, February 24, 2016 [ last accessed on 26 June 2016 at http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2016/02/24/no-cell-phones-are-not-cooking-mens-sperm/ ].
Note 1.26 – Frederik Joelving, “Is your laptop cooking your testicles?” Reuters, November 8, 2010 [ last accessed on 17 July 2016 at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-laptop-testicles-idUSTRE6A457320101108 ].
Note 1.27 – Id.
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