Why you can’t fry eggs (or testicles) with a cellphone
Posted by admin on 20th December 2016
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A minor craze in men’s underwear fashions these days seems to be briefs that shield the genitals from cellphone radiation. The sales claim is that these products protect the testicles from the harmful effects of the radio waves emitted by cellphones, and therefore help maintain a robust sperm count and high fertility. These undergarments may shield the testicles from radiation, but do male cellphone users really risk infertility?

The notion that electromagnetic radiation in the radio frequency range can cause male sterility, either temporary or permanent, has been around for a long time. As I describe in my book “Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation,” during World War II some enlisted men would consistently and inexplicably volunteer for radar duty just prior to their scheduled leave days. It turned out that a rumor had been circulating that exposure to radio waves from the radar equipment produced temporary sterility, which the soldiers saw as an employment benefit.

The military wanted to know whether there was any substance to the sterility rumor. So they asked Hermann Muller – a geneticist who won the Nobel Prize for showing that x-rays could cause sterility and genetic mutations – to evaluate the effects of radio waves in the same fruit fly experimental model he had used to show that x-rays impaired reproduction.

Muller could find no dose of radio waves that produced either sterility or genetic mutations, and concluded that radio waves did not present the same threat to fertility that x-rays did. Radio waves were different. But why? Aren’t both x-rays and radio waves electromagnetic radiation?

The electromagnetic spectrum, tiny wavelengths on the left, longer wavelengths on the right.
Inductiveload, CC BY-SA

Yes, they are – but they differ in one key factor: They have very different wavelengths. All electromagnetic radiation travels through space as invisible waves of energy. And it’s the specific wavelength of the radiation that determines all of its effects, both physical and biological. The shorter wavelengths carry higher amounts of energy than the longer wavelengths.

X-rays are able to damage cells and tissues precisely because their wavelengths are extremely short – one-millionth the width of a human hair – and thus are highly energetic and very harmful to cells. Radio waves, in contrast, carry little energy because their wavelengths are very long – about the length of a football field. Such long-wavelength radiations have really low energies – too low to damage cells. And it’s this big difference between the wavelengths of x-rays and radio waves that the infertility theorists fail to recognize.

X-rays, and other high-energy waves, produce sterility by killing off the testicular cells that make sperm – the “spermatogonia.” And x-ray doses must be extremely high to kill enough cells to produce sterility. Still, even when the doses are high, the sterility effect is usually temporary because the surviving spermatogonia are able to spawn replacements for their dead comrades, and sperm counts typically return to their normal levels within a few months.

So, if high doses of highly energetic x-rays are needed to kill enough cells to produce sterility, how can low doses of radio waves with energies too low to kill cells do it? Good question.