‘Flying under the radar’: Report finds harmful forever chemicals don’t get proper media coverage

BERKELEY, Calif. — The harmful effects of per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are going largely unnoticed by the general public, researchers warn. Even though the media has covered the dangers of these “forever chemicals,” a recent study explains that a significant number of related reports don’t make the rounds, leading to missed opportunities for greater public awareness.

Researchers from the Green Science Policy Institute found that most studies highlighting links between PFAS exposure and human health risks often go without media coverage. This happens largely because they aren’t promoted through press releases. Consequently, their impact and reach are considerably diminished.

“It’s a shame that only a small slice of this science is reaching the public,” says Rebecca Fuoco, the study’s lead author and director of science communications at the Green Science Policy Institute, in a media release. “New studies finding strong associations between forever chemicals and serious harms like preterm birth and cancer are flying under the radar. Research tucked away in scientific journals has limited reach, and therefore, impact.”

The study delved into 273 peer-reviewed epidemiological papers on the health effects of PFAS from 2018 to 2020. Remarkably, those accompanied by a press release garnered 20 times more media attention. Yet, only eight percent of the significant findings were promoted with a press release.

Moreover, important findings connecting PFAS exposure to risks such as preterm births, various cancers, osteoporosis, and gestational diabetes went mostly unnoticed by the media and social media platforms.

Worker in protective clothing handling chemicals
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

While the focus of the analysis was primarily on PFAS, researchers believe the same trend might be seen across other scientific fields.

One hindrance to issuing press releases is the misconception among researchers that media coverage might not significantly benefit their careers or, worse, may misrepresent their findings. However, the study found that papers with press releases received two-thirds more scholarly citations. Another concern is the accuracy of media reporting, though overstatements often originate from university press releases, indicating a need for scientists to be more involved in the press release process.

“I urge scientists and their institutions to embrace media outreach as a critical part of the research process,” says Linda Birnbaum, study co-author and scientist emeritus at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and scholar in residence at Duke University. “As scientists we hold the key to information that can inform better policies, medical practices, industry innovation, and more. It’s our responsibility to unlock that potential by sharing our research with a wide audience.”

Arlene Blum, study co-author and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, echoed the sentiment, emphasizing that the public has a right to be informed about the research they fund.

“Most scientific studies in our country are funded by the public who deserve to know the results of the research they’re paying for,” says Blum. “With a press release and straightforward plan, scientists can increase their media coverage, reach, and the impact of their work.”

The authors also provided guidelines for scientists aiming to boost media attention for their studies and referred to online resources, including videos and templates.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Health.

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