Saturday, December 03, 2011

Weekend Post - Is my laptop frying my fertility?”

The answer is almost certainly not but from the recent press coverage you can be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

The BBC published a story that was widely circulated that was headlined “Scientists question if wi-fi laptops can damage sperm”. The story reported that after being placed next to a laptop that was downloading data “sperm were less able to swim and had changes in the genetic code that they carry.”

Needless to say the headlines grew more and more scary as the story spread around the world’s media. The particularly hysterical British Daily Mail stated that “Radiation from WiFi connections can reduce sperm activity in up to a quarter of men” and the even more hysterical Huffington Post stated that “Wi-Fi Laptops 'Kill' Sperm”.

Unfortunately not all of the reports actually explained what the experiment involved and gave ment enough information on what to do with their laptops (and their laps).

The facts are a bit less scary that the excitable elements of the press suggest. To begin with this was just what the researchers called a “Prospective in vitro study”. This was just an experiment they conducted in a laboratory, “in vitro”, in glass. The experiment was actually very simple. Samples of healthy sperm were placed for four hours next to a laptop computer that was downloading data. Another set of samples was placed in an identical setting except there was no laptop downloading next to it. When they examined the samples after the four hours they discovered that the samples near the downloading laptop were less mobile and more damaged than the control group.

This was hardly real life. It’s certainly not what most men do with their sperm. Nevertheless it’s still an interesting study that it would be foolish to ignore. As the researchers say, “Further in vitro and in vivo studies are needed” to establish whether this effect is genuine. An “in vivo” study means a test in real life, in a living body. If other researchers can replicate these results an experiment with real men and laptops can be undertaken.

Until then we can be cautious. The most important thing is not to panic. The experiment these guys undertook is nothing like the normal way that men and women make babies. It’s also certainly not the way men usually offer their contribution to the baby-making process.

This was just one study, with a very small sample size, involving only 29 sperm samples and the effect was small. There is also no plausible explanation for how this effect might have been caused by the wi-fi network. The strength of a wi-fi signal is so weak that it’s unclear how it might have caused the damage. Critically wi-fi signals, like cellphone signals are non-ionizing, they simply don’t have the strength or frequency to cause damage to biological cells. They’re not like X-Rays or gamma rays that can have a massive impact on the human body. They’re not very different to sitting still while listening to the radio. The signals from your local radio station are around us all the time and nobody panics about them, do they?

However one thing that is known to affect sperm is heat. Excess heat around those parts of a man’s body can reduce fertility but the researchers in this study apparently ruled that out as an explanation. I’d find it perfectly easy to believe that repeatedly resting a laptop on your lap for a long period could effect a man’s fertility. Also sperm are fairly fragile and can quite easily be affected by a range of factors other than heat.

The BBC asked an expert, Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield, for his reaction to the study. He said that “we cannot infer from this study that because a man might use a laptop with wi-fi on his lap for more than four hours then his sperm will necessarily be damaged and he will be less fertile.” That sounds sensible to me. Let’s wait and see what further studies come up with before banning wi-fi networks from anywhere near prospective fathers.

In the meantime, if you’re a guy worried about his fertility then not keeping a hot laptop on your lap for too long is probably very good advice. More importantly it’s hardly the way to woo your partner, is it? Better still, try some romance, you’re much more likely to make a baby that way, it’s scientifically proven. Trust me.


The original story from the BBC can be seen here and the abstract of the study can be seen on the Fertility and Sterility site here.

For the more hysterical coverage see the Daily Mail here ("Working on a laptop wirelessly may hamper a man’s chances of fatherhood") and the Huffington Post here ("Wi-Fi Laptops 'Kill' Sperm").

For more reasoned coverage see The Register here and Time here.

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