Is radiation exposure an infertility risk factor?


Exercise positively impacts the reproductive system and keeps it healthy at all times. Sitting for too long is bad for the system and fertility. With developing technology, life is becoming more sedentary. The exposure to different kinds of radiation is gradually increasing. The sources are vast and are a part of our lifestyle– TV, mobile phones, and computer devices.
Medical care can also be a source of radiation exposure– for instance, anticancer therapy and diagnostic imaging. This radiation exposure may be the leading cause of infertility.

Besides, mobiles now necessarily rule our daily life to meet our requirements. Along with the potential benefits of this technology, the risks also continue and increase over time. 

Cell phones and laptops can be a potential risk in the long run. The former uses radiofrequency fields (RFRs) in the form of electromagnetic waves. These waves transmit from the handset to the closest base station to connect calls, text messages, and to access the internet.

Types of radiations that can cause infertility

Radiations are of two types depending on the energy of the radiation particles.

Ionizing radiation

These are the high energy radiations capable of knocking electrons out of the atom, leaving behind a positive charge. They can affect directly or indirectly. Direct damage involves breaks the DNA strand due to the displaced electron. In contrast, in indirect damage, the particles react with water and form a free radical, which eventually leads to DNA damage.

  • Deterministic effect: It is dose-dependent. If it exceeds the threshold limit, it can result in functional impairments of a tissue or organ. This kind of radiation exposure can also cause infertility.
  • Stochastic effect: There is no threshold limit, but the effect increases with dose.  

Although high energy ionizing radiation can cause significant damage to individual molecules, a very high dose is vital to cause overall harm to the human.

Non-ionizing radiation

Non-ionizing radiations are electromagnetic field radiations. Its energy is not enough to release electrons but can excite the electron to a higher energy level. They are subdivided into

Low frequency300HzMilitary equipment, railroads
Intermediate300Hz to 10MHzTV, computer devices
Hyper frequency10Mhz to 3000GHzMobile phones, radio
Static0 frequencyMRI, geomagnetic

As EMF has high penetration power, effects of EMF are

  1. Thermal effect
  2. Non-thermal effect

Thermal effect on infertility

The thermal effect refers to the heat generated due to EMF. All objects produce thermal radiations simply because of the atoms they comprise. Although they have a definite temperature, it can increase at any time. Most of these thermal radiations are infrared waves.

Tissue heating is a primary effect since it is the underlying principle mechanism of interaction between radiations and the human body.

The skin and superficial tissue absorb most of the energy of the frequencies generated from a device. Though it usually results in a rise in temperature, it does not pose any proven health risk. Depending on the duration of exposure, it can lead to

  • Physical deformation
  • Activation of signaling pathways
  • Docking with receptors on the cell membrane

The WHO (World Health Organization) and FCC (Federal Communication Commission) have laid down the specific exposure to radiofrequency emission from handheld mobile phones in terms of SAR (Specific Absorption Rate). SAR refers to the number of radio frequencies absorbed. The FCC limit for SAR value is 1.6Watts per kilogram. Whereas 2 Watt per kilogram is the restrictive limit.

Protect yourself while on a call

The exposure to the RFRs reduces with distance. The authorities highly recommend using speaker mode or a hands-free set for long calls. With increasing distance, the effect of radiation also decreases and has a much lower impact than holding the mobile directly against the ear. Manufacturers claim to reduce the emission using shielding cases and individual batteries, which can help reduce heat, eventually reducing the thermal effect on an individual. They also help reduce the RFRs by using specialized equipment.

How can radiation cause male infertility?

Male fertility is more likely affected by intense exposure to heat, and eventually crotch overheating- scrotal hyperthermia. Using a laptop on your laps with knees together increases the temperature of the scrotum. Besides, using it continuously for about 2 hours every night can keep the regions’ temperature elevated at all times. Thus, it doesn’t have enough time to go back to normal. So, it’s always better to use a laptop on a desk and off your laps.

Apart from reducing the sperm count, radiation also affects sperm quality in men. It decreases semen volume, sperm concentration, sperm count, and motility. Besides, the testis is a sensitive organ, and anything that increases their temperature can result in infertility.

Radiations can result in considerable functional impairment of the testis due to oxidative stress- Accumulation of ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). The sperm membrane is rich in unsaturated fatty acids and thus is sensitive to oxidation.

ROS can undergo unnecessary oxidations resulting in cell and tissue damage. Lipid peroxidation and changing antioxidant activities in the body can enhance the negative impacts of ROS. The sperm is susceptible to radiation effects. 

Although there lies a natural mechanism to neutralize the effect of ROS on sperms, any abnormal sperm can increase ROS leading to increased oxidative stress. In conclusion, radiations can low sperm count and motility. Other factors like age, environment, nutrition, lifestyle, and sperm condition can determine the intensity of the effects due to radiation.

How can radiation cause female infertility?

Radiations focused on or around the ovaries can have considerable impacts resulting in loss of its activity or malfunction. In addition, high doses can destroy the eggs in the ovaries, causing infertility or early menopause. During medical treatment, when a woman undergoes radiation therapy near the abdominal area or pelvic region, there is a high chance she loses her fertility. 

Ionizing radiations can also have a gonadotoxic action with chronic effects that include ovarian insufficiency, pubertal arrest, and eventually infertility.

Electromagnetic radiations are capable of preventing the formation of antral follicles from inhibiting ovulation and reducing the number of corpora lutea

Radiation exposure on female infants can lead to a decrease in uterine volume and elasticity changes. Oxidative stress is a common consequence leading to DNA damage and, eventually, programmed cell death. Exposure to radiation during pregnancy can also result in congenital disabilities. According to statistics, it is also responsible for a considerable increase in the abortion rate.

Related: Can AirPods cause cancer? Is it safe to use them?

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