Media reports exaggerate cell phone risks again
Monday, September 22, 2008
Several mainstream news outlets have misstated and overstated a possible link between cellular phone use and decreased fertility in men. A single experiment, which has not yet been published in any peer reviewed journal or replicated by other scientists, observed an average decrease in sperm motility and an increase in free radicals among laboratory sperm samples that were exposed to radiation similar to the radiation produced by cellular phone use.
Dr. Ashok Agarwal of the Cleveland Clinic estimates the overall health impact of cellular phones as "very safe" and reassured a Cable News Network reporter that the research was too premature to advise lifestyle changes for the public. "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." He noted that his own cell phone was in his trouser pocket while he was giving the interview. Dr. Agarwal is the lead researcher for the study and Director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.
Cell phone industry spokesman Joe Farren agreed with Dr. Agarwal's assessment about the devices' overall safety: "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."
The controlled experiment used sperm samples from thirty-two donors: twenty-three healthy men and nine men who had fertility problems. Sperm were then exposed to radiation for one hour at 850 megahertz, the most common frequency for cell phones in the United States. Dr. Agarwal's study raises a possible concern that cell phones kept on belts or trouser pockets and used in conjunction with wireless bluetooth earpieces "could cause harmful effects due to the proximity of the phones and the exposure that they are causing to the gonads." He also noted that follow-up research is needed to determine whether the body's skin and other tissue affords protection from the potential damage.
Several news sources ran misleading reports that overstated the risk.
The Los Angeles Times asserted a fallacious causal relationship that Dr. Agarwhal had not drawn and ignored his opinions that cellular phones are safe and no change in phone use is necessary. Instead, the piece opened by ordering men to stop keeping cell phones in their pockets:
HAVE YOUR SAY
Do you think that cell phones are safe?
- "Attention male cellphone users of reproductive age: Take that phone out of your pocket. Information published today suggests that the radio-frequency energy released by cellphones decreases sperm quality in men."
Ciol News ran a similar account:
- "Beware men! Do you have the habit of keeping your mobile phone in the pockets of your trousers while talking on hand-free? Or do clip the mobile to your belt while talking? If so you are doing that at the cost of your fertility, warns a recent study."
- "Oh no! It seems that mobile phones are getting even more problematic than ever. After getting linked to everything from migraines to cancer, it seems that the radiation from cell phones is now being connected to stupid sperm. Yes, I'm talking about the little swimmers that lead into a conversation about the birds and the bees."
Mobile Magazine also ended in a misleading manner with "I wonder if it's healthier to put your phone in your shirt pocket instead," failing to mention that Dr. Agarwal had addressed that concern and had called it an unnecessary precaution.
Not all news sources overplayed the findings. CNN and United Press International ran balanced reports that did not suggest dangers or precautions beyond the lead researcher's conclusions.
- "Are you in the network of infertility?" — , 22 September 2008
- Shari Roan. "Radio waves from cellphones damage sperm, study says" — , 19 September 2008
- "Cells phones may hurt sperm quality" — , 19 September 2008
- Michael Kwan. "Sperm Get Stupid from Cell Phone Radiation" — , 19 September 2008
- A. Chris Gajilan. "Cell phones can affect sperm quality, researcher says" — , 18 September 2008