A new study on masks is being used to claim they are harmful to human health. But experts say the proof isn’t there

CheckMate is a weekly newsletter from RMIT FactLab recapping the latest in the world of fact checking and misinformation. It draws on the work of FactLab’s researchers and journalists, including its CrossCheck unit, and of its sister organisation, RMIT ABC Fact Check. 

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CheckMate April 28, 2023

This week, we ask the experts about supposedly “explosive” new research on face masks and health risks.

We also bring you a fact check on a claim about the gender pay gap from Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, and look into the murky world of AI-generated music.

Experts weigh in on ‘explosive’ mask study

Face masks have been a political flashpoint since the pandemic began.()

Experts have expressed doubt over a new research paper purportedly showing that face masks “may raise the risk of stillbirths, testicular dysfunction and cognitive decline in children”.

The paper, authored by German researchers and featured in a sensational Daily Mail article that described the findings as “explosive”, reviewed numerous studies regarding carbon dioxide (CO2) exposure and face masks.

According to University of Wollongong epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, it then “used some rodent research to speculate on how this [exposure] might cause issues to long-term health”.

The Daily Mail article was shared widely online, including by former federal MP and current United Australia Party national director Craig Kelly.

But Mr Meyerowitz-Katz, along with other experts, told CheckMate the study did not actually find any link between mask wearing and negative health outcomes.

“The study itself is a scoping review, and … does not prove much about masks,” he said.

“At best, this might be useful to drive future research, but it’s not the sort of methodology that can prove a causal connection, especially as none of the included studies actually measured the long-term health of people wearing masks.”

James Trauer, who heads the epidemiological modelling unit at Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, said the methods used in the review were “not really adequate to the importance of the question” being investigated and didn’t “justify the conclusions [the authors] arrived at”.

As the paper was not a systematic review that followed established guidelines, he said it was “hard to know exactly what they’ve done”, but noted that the absence of any studies contradicting its main findings was “highly suspicious”.

Running through those findings, Dr Trauer told CheckMate he was “happy to accept” that masks increase the amount of carbon dioxide inhaled by wearers and that — based on the studies listed — they “probably” increase the concentration of CO2 in humans.

It was, however, “very dubious” to conclude from the evidence presented that increased CO2 in animals leads to negative health effects, he said, adding that the paper contained “no evidence whatsoever” that increased CO2 in the blood leads to health problems in humans.

Indeed, given that scoping reviews aim to identify what evidence is out there, Dr Trauer said that “possibly the main conclusion … should be that they have not been able to identify any evidence of any health effects in humans from increased carbon dioxide”.

When it came to the specific suggestion from the authors that mask wearing “may be related to current observations of stillbirths”, Shaun Brennecke, director of the Department of Maternal-fetal Medicine at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne, described the evidence as “very circumstantial” and “not in any way shape or form conclusive”.

While there had indeed been a pandemic-era rise in stillbirths, he said, there was “no causative study amongst any of it to actually directly link [it with] face mask wearing”.

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