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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Male-Mediated Teratogens and Endocrine Disruptors: Pesticides, solvents, and cell phone radiation

Posted on February 2, 2012

By Devra Davis, PhD MPH

This essay is in response to: How is the developing fetus vulnerable to toxic chemical exposures, and how can our regulatory system more effectively protect our health in the prenatal period?

In advising women about important prenatal risk factors, clinicians have tended to focus on classical teratogens, such as alcohol, tobacco smoking, lead, solvents, and ionizing radiation that work after conception to damage offspring. But these and other compounds and physical agents can also affect reproductive health by impairing the capacity of men to produce healthy children or adversely impacting the health of those that are conceived. The term male-mediated teratogen has been used to characterize a number of environmental factors that affect the ability of men to become fathers as well as the health of the children they produce. Among the male-linked factors that have been demonstrated through experimental and epidemiological studies to result in damage to progeny are: cocaine, alcohol, some pesticides and solvents such as DBCP and trichloroethylene, and heavy metals such as lead and mercury.  Not surprisingly, these same agents also function as direct teratogens that work through classical routes of placental uptake to impair embryonic development.

Another growing environmental health hazard to male reproductive health has received little attention. Microwave radiation from cellphones is both a classical teratogen and a male-mediated teratogen, and should therefore be deemed an endocrine disrupting agent that merits serious attention from public health policy makers and clinicians. In addition, there is growing indication that cellphone radiation can also function as an epigenetic carcinogen, and it may also be a direct carcinogen. Epigenetic carcinogens are those that increase cancer risk without damaging DNA, by affecting patterns of methylation or repair, or through other non-structural impacts. 

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Most people and their clinicians are not aware that fine print warnings have been issued with smart phones advising that people not keep phones in their pockets and avoid exposure to the pregnant abdomen or those of teenagers. A cellphone is a two-way microwave radio with intermittent and destabilizing pulses, unlike microwave ovens that steadily operate at the same frequencies. The weak and erratic microwave radiation from cellphones and tablets cannot directly break the bonds that hold molecules together, but does disrupt DNA, weaken the brain’s protective barrier, and releases highly reactive and damaging free radicals.

The scientific grounds underlying these warnings are provided by a series of studies from scientists in Finland, Russia and Turkey, including the work of the highly respected Prof. Nesrin Seyhan, the NATO-supported founding chair of the Biophysics Department at Gazi University in Ankara, Turkey, whose studies repeatedly show that prenatally exposed rats and rabbits have fewer brain cells -- and those that survive sustain more damage to their  brain, liver, reproductive system and eye compared to animals not exposed to cellphone radiation. Her distinguished colleague, Sulleyman Kaplan, has also shown that prenatal exposure results in fewer brain pyramidal cells and more brain damage (dentate gyrus) to exposed offspring, in an important but little-recognized series of papers.

Experimental work completed by teams working with two experts in male reproductive health, Prof. Ashok Agarwal of the Cleveland Clinic and Sir Robert John Aitken of Australia’s Newcastle University, have shown that cellphone-radiation-exposed human sperm die three times faster, swim significantly more poorly, become more deformed, and develop significantly more damage to sperm DNA. This past fall, Conrado Avendano and a team Argentinian scientists in Cordoba showed that semen from healthy men die twice as fast when placed under a laptop that is connected to wireless radiation. 

With one in every five couples reportedly have serious problems reproducing, the avoidance of direct exposure to the reproductive organs from cellphones, wireless-connected laptops, and other closely held wireless devices should become standard medical advice.

Vulnerability to toxic insult varies with the rate of cell division and with the developmental state of the exposed tissues. This means that rapidly dividing cells, such as spermatocytes, neural stem cells, and embryonic cells, will be especially susceptible. The faster that cells grow and the younger they are, the greater their propensity to make errors and the lesser their ability to repair that damage. New experimental studies indicate that cellphone radiation should be considered an important and generally under-recognized factor—just like some solvents, pesticides, tobacco, and other confirmed reproductive risks--that can affect the capacity of couples to make healthy children when they choose to do so.

Experimental Evidence of Reproductive Toxicity








Male Mediated Teratogen

Endocrine Disruptor

Epigenetic Carcinogen/Obesogen


Decreases sperm motility and spermatogenesis

Yes, disrupts estrous cycle

EC-Yes, and mutagenic

Obesogen - unknown

Bisphenol A (BPA)

Unknown, however is a female mediated teratogen in combination with genistein 3

Yes, effects prostrate gland of fetuses, infants and children 2


EC – Yes, as classified by the IARC, has been shown to induce and promote several cancer types 4

Obesogen – Possibly, some estrogenic properties and hormonal activities may cause it to act as one 4

Tin Compounds 5

Modest however not detrimental effects, further research needed

Yes, in both vertebrates and invertebrates

EC- inadequate information to properly assess 9

Obesogen – combined with factors such as the high fat Western Diet, yes

Cell Phone/ Laptop /Microwave Radiation

Yes, decreases sperm motility and increases DNA Fragmentation 6

Yes, produces physiological responses similar to that of stress hormones 7

EC- Likely

Classified by IARC and WHO as possibly carcinogenic 8

Obesogen – unknown


  1. Dibromochloropropane (DBCP): a review.
  2. FDA’s Current Perspective on BPA
  3. Embryotoxic and teratogenic effects of the combination of bisphenol A and genistein on in vitro cultured postimplantation rat embryos.
  4. An Evaluation of Evidence for the Carcinogenic Activity of Bisphenol A
  5. Environmental Obesogens: Organotins and Endocrine Disruption via Nuclear Receptor Signaling
  6. Use of laptop computers connected to internet through Wi-Fi decreases human sperm motility and increases sperm DNA fragmentation
  7. National Service Center for Environmental Publications
  8. IARC Classifies Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields as Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans
  9. Tin and Tin Compounds: Regulations and Advisories

Acknowledgement: This paper was prepared with the assistance of Spencer Schecht and Jeremy Ramlagan.


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