Rabbits needn’t worry about cell phones’ effects on their sperm count, say three retractions

If you’re a rabbit and you haven’t figured out where to carry your cell phone, your front pocket is just fine.

That’s what you could reasonably infer from the retraction of a paper in the International Journal of Andrology purporting to show that mobile phones affected rabbits’ sperm counts. The notice, signed by the journal’s editor, Ewa Rajpert-De Meyts (we added links):

The following article from the International Journal of Andrology 33: 88–94, 2010, ‘Effects of exposure to a mobile phone on testicular function and structure in adult rabbit’ by Nader Salama, Tomoteru Kishimoto and Hiro-omi Kanayama, published online on 9 December 2008 in Wiley Online Library (http://www.wileyonlinelibrary.com), has been withdrawn at the request of the author and agreed with the journal’s current and past Editors-in-Chief, Ewa Rajpert-De Meyts and Jorma Toppari, and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. The retraction has been agreed due to lack of approval of the article by co-authors, lack of evidence to justify the accuracy of the data presented in the article and overlap of data and figures between this article and two others, Systems Biology in Reproductive Medicine, 55:181–187, 2009 ‘The Mobile Phone Decreases Fructose but not Citrate in Rabbit Semen’ by Nader Salama, Tomoteru Kishimoto, Hiro-omi Kanayama, and Susumu Kagawa and International Journal of Impotence Research 22: 127–33, 2010, ‘Effects of exposure to a mobile phone on sexual behavior in adult male rabbit: an observational study’ by Salama N, Kishimoto T, Kanayama HO, Kagawa S.

That’s an impressive tally of reasons why the paper is being retracted: The evidence wasn’t there, someone — we understand it was Salama, of the Alexandria Faculty of Medicine in Egypt — didn’t get permission of his co-authors to publish the study, and the paper was duplicated from two others.

We understand that the two other papers by Salama et. al. mentioned in the notice will also be retracted, but that the journals are still finalizing the language of the notices.

The retracted paper has been cited nine times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. The one in Systems Biology in Reproductive Medicine has been cited four times, while the one in the International Journal of Impotence Research has yet to be cited. (The latter’s title — “Effects of exposure to a mobile phone on sexual behavior in adult male rabbit: an observational study” — makes us wonder if the study protocol involved rabbits sexting.)

German scientists Alexander Lerchl and Christian Bornkessel, of Jacobs University, in Bremen, and IMST GmbH, in Kamp-Lintfort, respectively, had alerted the editors of the journal to problems — you might say a disconnect with the study’s data plan — with the paper in a letter published in 2009:

We have a number of concerns; the two most important ones deal with the exposure conditions and the biological effects respectively. Exposure was carried out by a GSM mobile phone at 800 MHz in ‘standby position’. In standby mode (we assume that this is meant by ‘standby position’), a GSM mobile phone does not transmit RF electromagnetic fields, as in talk mode, except for short signals once in a while (every 0.5 h up to several hours, depending on the network operator) indicating its presence to the base station. Therefore, the animals were not exposed to high-frequency electromagnetic fields for eight hours per day, but only for a few seconds! The reported whole-body SAR values of 0.43 W/kg are therefore probably wrong because we expect they were calculated for the transmit frequency. Besides, GSM 800 is not the standard for mobile communication in Japan (where the experiments were performed).

Lerchl and Bornkessel’s concerns about the alleged biological effects are best summed up by this sentence:

…the extremely sudden (and thereafter entirely stable) effects on sperm counts and motility respectively are biologically incomprehensible.

The authors did respond to the letter.

We’ve tried to reach the authors of the papers, and will update with anything we hear back.

Update, 5 a.m. Eastern, 3/28/12: As a commenter points out, the German language Laborjournal was first to report this story, in an editorial by Lerchl on March 16. (We have a column in LabTimes, Laborjournal’s sister publication.) We weren’t aware of Laborjournal’s piece, which didn’t come up in a routine search, when we posted this item, or we would have mentioned it. Glad to be able to link to it now.



10 thoughts on “Rabbits needn’t worry about cell phones’ effects on their sperm count, say three retractions”

  1. Ivoransky said: “We’ve tried to reach the authors of the papers.”

    Maybe you should try reaching them on their cell phones.

    [I’ve self-censored an additional line about a retraction with “hare-raising implications”]

  2. The Lerchl/Bornkessel letter states that, first, the exposure statements didn’t make any sense, and, second, that the reported results aren’t statistically believable. Unfortunately, the author’s response is behind a paywall, but it is hard to imagine an effective response to those charges.
    Hard to understand how this paper could have been published in the first place, given those problems.
    So, the implications are “hare” raising, indeed. The editors of the International Journal of Andrology seem to have been asleep at the switch.
    Maybe I shouldn’t carry my rabbit’s foot in my front pants pocket?

  3. The gist of the response was twofold… on the “biologically incomprehensible” data problem, they make a game try to claim that they had a much better technique than the authors of the previous study (although they didn’t cite it in their original paper). I have no knowledge of the rabbit-sperm-counting literature, so I can’t comment on the validity of their arguments. On the fact that their phones were in standby mode and therefore not transmitting, they fall back on “We expect that every reader interested in MP research is aware that, during standby position, a GSM mobile phone does not transmit radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic fields, as it does when in the talk mode, except for intermittent brief signals. Therefore, the animals were not exposed to high RF electromagnetic fields for 8:00 h/day.” Which begs the question, um, why they say that they were?

    It’s truly sad, though, because Fig. 1 in this paper was destined to be a classic.

  4. For those readers who know German: there was a piece on this affair by A. Lerchl in Laborjournal online (http://www.laborjournal.de/editorials/588.html). The author also wondered whether N. Salama is actually a real person, as his name does not appear in the lists of collaborators of either institute which he gives as affiliation on the papers, and he uses a yahoo-Email address, rather than an instutional one.

    This is a rather political field. Some people are so convinced that mobile phone radiation is evil, that they’ll do pretty much anything to prove it. Fake data if need be.

  5. I don’t think the retraction of the paper is evidence that it is “safe” for rabbits to put cell phones in their front pockets. The paper is at best irrelevant. It is not a statement about safety one way or another.

    There are, of course, good reasons to think that the kinds of radiation emitted by cell phones would have zero or near zero effect on cells, so one could argue that the paper’s retraction is movement to the fallback position, but it is not under any conditions a statement about safety.

    On the other hand, one does have to address the more fundamental and important question: What are these rabbits doing with pockets?

    1. Nader Salama is a real person. I have contacted him some 3 years ago by email. And his department in Alexandria stated, about 1 year ago, that the is indeed member of faculty there and they are proud of him. That was before the papers were retracted …

  6. Thank you Moose for pointing out the genius of figure 1, I have now appointed my five year old twins as illustrators-in-chief on all of my papers in preparation. What better way to enthuse the younger generations.

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