Male infertility: Can cell phone use impact sperm count?

  • Health experts have searched for environmental and lifestyle influences behind decreasing male sperm count for half a century.
  • Some researchers believe mobile phones emitting low-level radiofrequency electromagnetic fields may affect male fertility.
  • A large Swiss population study revealed decreased sperm concentration and total sperm count with increased mobile phone use.
  • The findings indicate that advanced phone technologies may have less impact on sperm quality.

Compromised male fertility is thought to contribute to approximately half of clinical infertility cases.

Male infertility is a growing public health concern as experts have observed a 50% decline in male sperm counts over several decades.

Searching for answers, researchers have been investigating various environmental factors for their potential influence on sperm quality. These may include:

  • radiation exposure
  • endocrine disruptors
  • lifestyle habits (i.e., diet, stress, alcohol, drugs, and smoking)

In a recent study, scientists with the University of Geneva and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute examined the effects that mobile phone use and placement may have on male infertility.

The 13-year study suggests that smartphone use may be associated with lower sperm concentration and total sperm count (TSC) in young adult males.

However, transitions to 3G and 4G may have eased the impact on sperm count, perhaps due to the lower transmitting power of newer phones.

The findings were recently published in Fertility and Sterility.

Do cell phones affect male infertility?

For the study, researchers recruited 2,886 men ages 18 to 22 between 2005 and 2018 at military recruitment centers. The study periods spanned from 2005–2007, 2008–2011, and 2012–2018.

The laboratory specialists captured semen samples and recorded sperm concentration, total sperm count (TSC), and motility.

Participants answered questions regarding their reproductive and overall health, education, and lifestyle habits and were asked how often they use their devices. Answers about use frequency ranged from once a week to over 20 times daily.

A total of 2,764 subjects answered the questions. The researchers categorized these participants into five groups per cell phone use frequency.

Median sperm concentration was markedly higher among the men who reported using their phones once weekly compared with those who used their phones more than 20 times daily.

Moreover, the first study period showed a “more pronounced” link between smartphone use and sperm concentration than subsequent periods. The trajectory appears to align with the progression of new technologies from 2G to 3G to 4G, corresponding to a decrease in the mobile phone’s output power.

Does it matter where you carry your phone?

Researchers also asked the participants where they kept their phones when not in use. Answers regarding non-use phone location included pants, jacket, belt carrier, or elsewhere not on the body.

About 85.7% of the study group — 2,368 males — reported keeping their phones in their pants pockets when not in use.

The remaining males stored their phones in their jackets (4.6%) or away from the body (9.7%).

Study models did not show any association between carrying phones in the pants and lower semen quality parameters.

This lack of correlation was also evident in the stratified analysis according to the recruitment period.

Why is male sperm count going down?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a male with a sperm concentration below 15 million per milliliter may take more than a year to conceive a child with a partner.

Moreover, the chances of pregnancy are lower if the sperm concentration falls under 40 million per milliliter.

Research indicates that sperm count has lowered to an average of 47 million sperm per milliliter from 99 million. This is especially so in Western nations.

Medical News Today discussed the Swiss study with Dr. Hussain Ahmad, a consultant practitioner in the United Kingdom. He was not involved in the research.

Dr. Ahmad shared that myriad factors affect sperm count, such as:

  • drug use (prescription and illegal)
  • alcohol use
  • tobacco use
  • stress
  • physical inactivity

“Generally speaking, the world is a lot more “medicated” than it used to be. A lot of that can be attributed to advances in the health industry for diagnosis and treatment, as well as increased stress and pressure from modern lifestyles. When you combine the two of these, more patients are being diagnosed with stress and treated with medications. In theory, experiencing a level of stress that requires medical treatment doubles the chances of affected men having fertility issues.”

— Dr. Hussain Ahmad, consultant practitioner

Do ‘forever chemicals’ affect fertility in males?

Manmade poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used extensively in industries and consumer products.

PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” are slowly being phased out due to strong links with multiple health effects, including reduced semen quality.

However, these chemicals linger in the environment and human bodies.

A 2022 review suggests that PFAS accumulates to detectable levels throughout the body and within bodily fluids such as seminal fluid.

Does cell phone radiation have long-term effects?

The researchers collaborated on this large-scale, cross-sectional study on mobile phone use and semen quality. Their work gathered over a decade of data on thousands of men in Switzerland.

Dependence on self-reported data is a significant limitation. To overcome this in future research, the authors launched another study where participants will download a smartphone application.

This study only covered males ages 18 to 22. The effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) emitted by cell phones on older men are yet to be explored.

Dr. Neil Paulvin, DO, a NY-based board certified longevity and regenerative medicine doctor, not involved in the study, explained to MNT:

“The results are not entirely conclusive, but given that the association is lower in 2023 than it was from 2005-2007, the effect cell phone usage may have on fertility is likely going to be less prominent for younger men, and more prominent for older men, given that they would be more likely to use cell phones between 2005-2007.”

Urologist Dr. Justin Houman, also not involved in the study, told MNT that “older men, with their longer exposure to cell phone radiation and the cumulative effect of other environmental and lifestyle factors, might be at a heightened risk.”

Older cell phones may cause reproductive harm

“While the exact mechanism of impact remains a subject of debate, the correlation highlights the need for cautious use, particularly with older phone models associated with higher emissions,” Dr. Houman added.

The researchers concluded: “The lack of clear evidence for a negative association between mobile phone use and male fertility, as well as the dramatic increase in cell phone use over the past decade, underscores the need for further research in this area.”

The study authors also expressed the need for “prospective observational studies” to assess RF-EMF exposure to the testicles and the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis.”

“This would allow us to examine the association between cell phone use, RF-EMF exposure, and semen quality and to better understand the mode of action of RF-EMF on the male reproductive system,” the researchers rote.

Many factors affect fertility rates

Dr. Ahmad told MNT that while the Swiss study is interesting and warrants further investigation, there may be a bigger picture affecting stress and fertility rates that’s worth examining.

Other factors contributing to stress and declining fertility rates could also include:

  • economic factors
  • ongoing negative world news
  • pressures of social media

“[This means] that more individuals are experiencing levels of stress that require medical treatment,” Dr. Ahmad noted.

Indeed, some experts wonder if mobile phone use, in and of itself, might significantly affect male fertility.

Dr. Paulvin noted that there isn’t a clear verdict on the issue because “we live in a world where it’s practically impossible to operate without frequent cell phone usage.”

“It’s difficult to draw definitive conclusions from this study, though, because there are so many additional factors that affect fertility. And although this study concluded that cell phone usage affects sperm concentration, there were many factors it found no association with,” Dr. Paulvin concluded.

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