On the whole, I’m assuming that studies in the academic journal Fertility and Sterility — which include chart-toppers like “Are varicoceles associated with increased deoxyribonucleic acid fragmentation?” — don’t receive a whole lot of media attention. But a recent article that raised the question of whether WiFi-enabled laptops might be frying men’s sperm proved to be the exception.
Argentinian researchers obtained semen from 29 healthy men, and stored the samples underneath a laptop computer connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi, presumably simulating the experience of using a laptop on one’s lap.
Four hours later, the sperm in the samples stored under the computer showed less movement than sperm in samples that were stored at the same temperature but away from the laptop. And 9% of the laptop sperm showed DNA damage — more than three times higher than in the control group.
What happened? As the researchers write in their study:
Our data suggest that the use of a laptop computer wirelessly connected to the internet and positioned near the male reproductive organs may decrease human sperm quality.
At present we do not know whether this effect is induced by all laptop computers connected by Wi-Fi to the internet or what use conditions heighten this effect.
Other scientists are a little skeptical — and not just because the study design here seems to be something a particularly imaginative 14-year-old boy might have thought up. As British fertility expert Allan Pacey of the University of Sheffield told the BBC:
Ejaculated sperm are particularly sensitive to many factors because outside the body they don’t have the protection of the other cells, tissues and fluids of the body in which they are stored before ejaculation. Therefore, 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.
We need large epidemiological studies to determine this, and to my knowledge these have not yet been performed.
Right. So no need to panic and assume that laptop is turning you sterile. It’s not clear that the wireless waves — emitted at a very low power — are what might be impacting the sperm. Wi-Fi-enabled or not, laptops are hot, and heat isn’t good for sperm.
So there’s not much more we can conclude from this study, other than the fact we need more study. (Also, posts about sperm and laptops make for excellent link bait.) What we do know is that infertility is a common problem — about 15% of couples are infertile, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, and one-third of the time the problems lies chiefly with the man. There are a lot of reasons: infections, hormonal imbalances, smoking and general poor health. Wi-Fi is probably far down the list.