Cell Phones for Birth Control? A Cautionary Tale

Oct 24, 2006 1:27pm

Here’s a perfect case of a story–or, perhaps, just a great headline–that we think has gotten a little out of control.  Go to Google News, click on Health, and (at least the last I looked), the lead item was, "Men beware! Heavy mobile use may decrease sperm count." 

Google, as you know, reports no news on its own; the lead came from Xinhua, with other versions from Britian’s Independent, the BBC, a couple of Australian websites, and 60 other outlets. 

I did hear the story on the radio this morning, but for the most part, news organizations in the U.S. are leaving it alone–even though the study came from the Cleveland Clinic.  (They sampled 364 men, and made a presentation at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in New Orleans.  There’s nothing I could find on their site.)

Here’s what our medical unit says, by way of warning:

"Watch out for this one.  The ABC Medical Unit does not consider this study proof of anything regarding sperm and cell phone use.  There are many problems with the study.  First, the men in the study were all undergoing infertility evaluation, so they are not representative of men in the general population.  Second, the researchers did not control for other factors that are known to impact sperm count and quality, such as age, smoking, diet and exercise.  They conclude that the cell phones are the culprit but there is no evidence that it’s the cell phones and not some other factor that caused the difference in sperm quality.  Further, the researchers did not find any significant differences in sperm count among heavy cell phone users.  And lastly, there’s the matter of the end point in this study — there were no babies born here, so there is no measure of whether these differences in sperm quality would matter enough to impact human fertility."

(Thanks to Roger Sergel and Joanna Schaffhausen for the caution.)

The researchers are careful to say they haven’t proved cause and effect, just a correlation between sperm motility and cell phone use.  We ought also to point out that this is a presentation at a conference, not a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal.  Peer review, for all its flaws, is still science’s way of keeping itself honest.

WebMD did do a cautious version of the story; it’s their beat, after all.  But stories like this come up, and take on lives of their own. 

Cell phones and fertility?  I don’t know about you, but I hold the phone to my…ear.

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