There's been plenty of hearty debate between cell phone proponents and critics about potential cancer risks. After one study claimed cell phones had more detrimental health effects than smoking, a major cancer doctor came forward stating that there was strong upcoming evidence of a cell phone-cancer link, the first time a head of a major academic cancer research institution had suggested such a possibility.
Now another new study has been released citing a decidedly different hazard of cell phone use. The new study shows that cell phones are no friends of testes, the male reproductive organs in which sperm is made. In the upcoming study, it was shown that when in close range to the testes and in talk mode, cell phones damage sperm.
The new study is alarming because of two key problems. First, damaged sperm can lead to birth defects and higher incidences of various disabilities, as seen among the children of older fathers. Second, the scenario tested in the study is a common one. Males who chat using hands free headsets often leave their phones resting in their pockets, in perfect range to cause the testes harm.
Ashok Agarwal, who led the study and is the Director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, states, "We believe that these devices are used because we consider them very safe, but it could cause harmful effects due to the proximity of the phones and the exposure that they are causing to the gonads."
The study consisted of semen samples taken from 32 men, which exhibit similar sperm health. The samples were kept at constant temperature and other similar conditions, while being split into a control group and a test group. The test group was placed for an hour within 2.5 cm of a cell phone in talk mode, at 850 MHz, perhaps the most common frequency.
The transmissions led to an apparent increase in oxidative stress, with free radicals and oxidants being created at a higher rate and antioxidants being broken down. Agarwal says this stress equates to damaged sperm. Other factors which can cause it include environmental pollutants or infections in the urinary genital tract, he adds.
While the study does not trump up the cancer link, there may be a relation to testicular cancer as well. Says Agarwal, "On average, there was an 85 percent increase in the amount of free radicals for all the subjects in the study. Free radicals have been linked to a variety of diseases in humans including cancer."
Though the study raises some red flags -- due to its very controlled nature -- one key component was left out and remains to be tested say its creators. There is additional protection against various environmental hazards afforded by the body's skin, bone and tissue. In order to develop a more accurate picture, the effects on sperm or other cells, when passing through such layers would have to be examined.
As to why the cell phones seem to crank up oxidative stress is unclear. Agarwall theorizes, "Perhaps the cell phone radiation is able to affect the gonads through a thermal effect thereby increasing the temperature of the testes and causing damaging effects in the sperm cell."
A previous study from his team had shown that men who use their cell phones more than 4 hours a day have significantly lower sperm counts. The previous study had 361 subjects. It offers compelling supporting evidence as it provided evidence that even with tissue protection damage may be occurring. This, backed with the evidence from the more carefully controlled experimental study, which offers a possible mechanism for the damage, paint a worrisome picture.
Joe Farren, a spokesman for the CTIA was among the cell phone industry leaders who declined to criticize the studies, but argued, "The weight of the published scientific evidence, in addition to the opinion of global health organizations, shows that there is no link between wireless usage and adverse health effects."
But he even added, "We support good science and always have. It's important to look at studies that are peer-reviewed and published in leading journals and to listen to the experts."
Perhaps part of why they are hesitant to criticize Agarwall's work is that he is being so careful in his statements about its conclusions. He advises men not to feel compelled to move their cell phones from their pockets just yet, explaining, "Our study has not provided proof that you should stop putting cell phones in your pocket. There are many things that need to be proven before we get to that stage."