Male sperm count has fallen by more than 50% globally in the last 50 years, leaving researchers scrambling to understand why. Could it be pollution, PFAS and other potential toxins in our food and water, an increase in obesity and chronic disease, or even the omnipresent cell phone?
Scientists are unclear why, and amid signs the decline is accelerating, have warned of a potential fertility crisis on the horizon. Various aspects of modern living have been posited as potential causes, including pollution, alcohol and drug use, stress, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle and exposure to chemicals like pesticides. Not all scientists agree that sperm counts are falling, however, and the issue is not settled.
Even in scientific settings, sperm counts can be notoriously hard to measure with precision and the many factors that can impact sperm count can vary greatly across cultures—such as underwear choices—and exposure to EMF’s (electromagnetic frequencies) from electronic devices, which can be difficult to determine.
Observational studies in humans have found that frequent use of mobile phones is connected to a decline in sperm viability as well as an impact on how the sperm swam. But those studies didn’t necessarily control for factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption, leaving many scientists unimpressed.
A study of nearly 3,000 Swiss men conducted over a 13-year period indicates a connection does exist between frequent cell phone use and a decrease in sperm quantity. Scientists checked the quantity and quality of the sperm and analyzed data to see whether mobile phone use was linked to changes in sperm count, an important measure of fertility.
The subjects were all military men ages 18-22, and they represented the largest cross-sectional study to examine the relationship between cell phone use and sperm count. It concluded that men who had used their cell phones less frequently than others had higher sperm counts. It was discovered that men using their phones more than 20 times a day had significantly lower sperm counts than men who used their phones once a week.
Radiofrequency electromagnetic fields are greatly reduced when texting and highest when downloading large files, streaming audio or video, when only one or two bars are displayed, and when in a fast-moving bus, car or train, according to the California Department of Public Health.
The agency recommends keeping the phone away from the body and head — use the speakerphone or headphones instead — and carrying the phone in a backpack in a backpack, briefcase or purse.
Whether those fields can damage male fertility, however, has been a source of controversy and debate for years in the scientific community.
Studies in mice have found RF-EMF fields at levels like cell phones do indeed lower male fertility and contribute to sperm death and changes in the tissue of the testes. However, other animal studies have not replicated those effects, and there are huge differences between humans and mice in how sperm are created.
On the positive side, researchers found that as phone technology improved over the 13 years of the study, the impact on sperm count began to ease.
“I am intrigued by the observation that the biggest effect was apparently seen with older 2G and 3G phones compared to modern 4G and 5G versions. This is not something I am able to explain,” said Allan Pacey, deputy vice president and deputy dean of the faculty of biology, medicine and health at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, in a statement. He was not involved in the study.
One concern with the findings is that cell phone use was self-reported through questionnaires, which might have been an issue, as self-reporting can be unreliable. The researchers also point out that while they found this association, it's not necessarily causal, meaning that it is hard to say definitively that more cell phone use decreases sperm count as other factors might come into play.
Still, scientists not associated with the research say that both the published and the ongoing study hold value.
“Cell phones are constantly sending and receiving signals and they are going to receive and send more intense signals when they’re in use,” said Dr. Alexander Pastuszak, an assistant professor of surgery and urology at The University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City.
“But especially with the modern cell phone, like that signal is going to vary depending on whether you’re talking or whether you’re sending data, said Pastuszak, who was not involved in the study.
“It’s very, very difficult to draw a definitive conclusion from this type of study because it’s not controlled well enough to be able to do that,” Pastuszak said. “They can’t control for the day-to-day exposures of living in an urban environment, and those should not be understated. Even stress levels can impact spermatogenesis and hormone production.”
As an infertility expert who works daily with couples trying to conceive, Pastuszak points to the fascinating complexity of factors that impact infertility, for which sperm count and concentration are minor players.
“Total sperm count may not reflect actual decreases in fertility potential,” he said. “I can’t look a patient in the eye and say, just because you have 100 million sperm per milliliter with 50% motility and a sperm count of 500 million, that you’re going to be fertile,” he said.
“It’s the quality of sperm that counts. If you have quality sperm there is a good, decent or even great chance that you can have a child, even if you have just a literal handful of sperm.”
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