Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


Is Your Cell Phone Hurting You?

I just read a research study that has me a little concerned. Physicians at an infertility clinic in Ohio reported an association between cell phone use and infertility in men.

They evaluated 361 men who were undergoing infertility investigation. They excluded anyone with chronic problems known to affect sperm production.

The men were divided into four groups depending on their average daily cell phone usage. The groups were:

  • no use
  • less than 2 hours
  • 2 – 4 hours
  • more than 4 hours.

The researchers then looked at factors like sperm count, microscopic appearance of the sperm, sperm motility and sperm viability in each group.

The results were a little disturbing. The more a man used a cell phone, the worse his sperm looked.

Now a study like this doesn’t prove cause and effect. Still… It does make you wonder.

Some of my colleagues in alternative medicine have worried about possible health hazards from cell phones for some time. After all, they do emit a form of radiation and many of us have them on and in close proximity to our bodies for much of the day. There haven’t been major studies definitely proving health risks, but that doesn’t mean they won’t show up down the road.

It presents a problem for me. I’m not ready to give up my cell phone.

I well remember what it was like to be a physician in the pre-cell phone days. Being on call meant being near a phone. I knew where every pay phone was within at least a 30 mile radius of my home.

I have a vivid memory of standing thigh-deep in snow at a phone by the side of a road during a snow storm, freezing and having trouble hearing because of the wind noise and the passing trucks.

My first portable phone was the size of a shoe box and had very spotty reception. Even so, it was a great improvement over the pay phones.

It was marvelous to watch cell phone size decrease while performance increased. When the first flip phone arrived, we knew we were in the Star Trek age.

I really can’t imagine going without a cell phone now. I suspect you may be in the same position. So what are we to do with information like that in the study I just told you about?

First, be aware that cell phone usage may be an issue and minimize it to the extent possible.

Your cell phone emits radiation searching for a tower even when you’re not talking, so keep it turned off if you don’t really need it on.

Keep your cell phone away from your body as much as possible. Carry in a briefcase or leave it in a holder in your car or on your desk at work or home.

Using a speaker phone reduces your radiation exposure. The sound quality varies, so when you buy a phone be sure it has speaker phone capabilities (most do currently) and check out its performance in the speaker phone mode.

Even if it works great, it’s not always practical to use a speaker phone - for example in public places. A hands free headset is another alternative.

Wireless (Bluetooth) units have their own issues. They communicate with the phone or other electronic device by sending their own signal. The signal strength is smaller than a cell phone emits, and it doesn’t emit it constantly. A Bluetooth earpiece is an improvement, but it does emit radiation close to your ear.

A wired hands free ear piece produces minimal radiation, but purists argue that it still isn’t zero.

There is a hands free device on the market called Blue Tube that uses a hollow plastic tube to direct the sound to the ear. This avoids having a wire or anything producing any level of radiation right next to your ear.

That sounds like a good idea, but I haven’t used one and have no idea how well it works. However, as a physician I have used a sound transmitting device that relies on plastic tubes to transmit sound for years. It’s called a stethoscope and it works quite well.

The Blue Tube units cost about $25 or $30. I may get one just to try it out. If I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Here’s the summary. People hotly debate whether or not cell phone radiation poses any health hazard. To date, large studies haven’t shown definite risks. Critics claim these studies are flawed and biased by the interests of big industry.

Studies like the one I told you about here aren’t proof of cause and effect, but they are concerning. People opposed to cell phones point to such studies as evidence of the danger of cell phones.

I share their concern, but I’m not ready to give up my cell phone anytime soon – it’s just too convenient.

We often undertake risks to achieve a benefit. Driving a car is one example. The more you drive, the greater your risk of injury or death. Most of us decide the benefits of using a car outweigh the risks. We go ahead and drive, but reduce the risks as much as we can. We use safety equipment and drive cautiously.

I think the same approach can be used here.

If you can live without a cell phone, great. If not, follow the advice above to reduce your exposure while the science is being sorted out.

If you want to check out the study, here's the reference:

Agarwal A et al. Effects of cell phone usage on semen analyasis in men attending an infertility clinic: An observational study. Fertil Steril 2008 Jan; 89:124

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