May 22, 2007 at 8:30 PM ET
Is that a radiation shield in your shorts, or are you just glad to see me?
A Swiss clothing company has generated a buzz in the blogosphere by coming out with a line of underwear beefed up with silver threads to protect a guy’s private parts from cellphone radiation.
This comes in the wake of controversial research reporting a correlation between higher cellphone usage and lower sperm counts. But don't be too quick to send your $24 to Switzerland: The researcher behind one of those studies says wearing radiation-proof undies is a rather silly idea.
Even ISA Bodywear's Andreas Sallmann, the guy who came up with the idea, admits that the scientific evidence linking cell phones to reduced male fertility is ambiguous at best. "But if a risk exists, I make it possible to avoid it," he told Le Matin, a French-language newspaper in Switzerland. That was the article that started setting the blogs abuzz.
Sallmann was moved to action by research from the University of Szeged in Hungary, which reported the cellphone/sperm count connection back in 2004. More recently, a study led by Cleveland Clinic's Ashok Agarwal found a similar connection: Men who spent more than four hours a day on cell phones had lower sperm counts, less active sperm and more irregular-shaped sperm.
However, Agarwal told me today that it's not yet clear what the cause and effect might be. Maybe it has to do with a cell phone's warmth - something that longjohns laced with lead wouldn't protect you from. "It could be direct action of electromagnetic waves, but we still don't know how far those waves travel from the cell phone to the testicles," Agarwal said. "It's a riddle. We don't know the answer."
One possibility is that heavy-duty cellphone use and wimpy sperm are both related to lifestyle factors: A guy who's on his cell several hours a day might be facing enough stress to depress his fertility, even if radiation isn't a factor at all. Or maybe he's just not getting his fruits and veggies.
Agarwal said he's conducting a follow-up study on the cell/sperm connection, but he's not certain whether even that study will resolve all the unknowns. In contrast, he is certain that there's no scientific basis for wearing metal-lined undies.
"I don't think it is anything serious," he said. "It seems to me to be something unrelated to the work that we are doing. I think it's more for generating publicity for their line of briefs, and trying to use this as a selling gimmick. I don't think there's any science behind it."
But you knew that already, didn't you?
On a related but more serious note, the BBC's "Panorama" TV program raised questions this week about the health risks posed by wireless Internet hotspots at British schools. The show reported that radio frequency radiation levels in some schools were up to three times as high as the level found around cellphone towers.
Panorama noted that the link between radio frequency radiation and health problems such as cancer is tenuous, and that the British government says there's no risk. But concerns about cellphone radiation have become so widespread that the fresh reports are sparking second thoughts about Wi-Fi as well.
"I am asking schools to consider very seriously whether they should be installing Wi-Fi networks now, and this will make them think twice or three times before they do it," Philip Parkin, the general secretary of Britain's Professional Association of Teachers, is quoted as saying..
"I hope I don't come across as believing there's no possibility of any risk. I just don't accept the studies to date - many of which I've read all or chunks of, if they're public - that purport to show risk really demonstrate something to worry about. I'm not a John Stossel fan, but when a study in a lab claims that a risk is elevated from 1 in 10 million to 2 in 10 million and the researcher trumpets that as significant, and yet we are not seeing any increase in the general population of specific cancers or in specific high-use groups, then it's hard to pay credence to that.
"There seem to be contradictory claims made by those who posit risk. One group says, prudence. Fine, but we have decades of experience with microwaves, and we generally know how they harm us. The level of exposure from Wi-Fi and even cellular phones appears to be below those thresholds. Another group posits actual harm today, but I can't see that they have any evidence to that extent except clinical research which I find unconvincing, and much of which isn't peer-reviewed, double-blind, etc.
"Yet another group says that long-term health risks will emerge, but clearly we don't have the epidemiological results that would back that up. People who used cell phones heavily 20 years ago should have significantly worse health today and in very specific industries and social segments, even for a 20-year problem (especially with older, higher-strength cell phones).
"Finally, there's the electrosensitivity crowd that claims they suffer today. I'm sure these folks have real illnesses, but the description of where and when they suffer doesn't match up with the saturation of wireless communication going on today. And at least one double-blind study showed self-identified electrosensitives, when placed into circumstances that mirror their claimed pattern of response, clearly had no response against a control group."
So for the time being, I think I'll stick with my plain-vanilla BVDs rather than switching to silver-threaded stretchwear from Switzerland - and set aside those Wi-Fi worries.
For more about the debate over cellphone radiation, check out this guide from HowStuffWorks. Curmudgeonly physicist Robert Park weighed in on the "phone in your pants" controversy in this installment of his What's New column. And TODAY's Janice Lieberman included the subject in this rundown of health realities and rumors. As always, feel free to contribute your own unsolicited punditry in the comment section below.