PFAS, a group of synthetic chemicals, are usually called forever chemicals because they remain in the environment and the human body for decades. They are everywhere, from food to consumer products. While scientists are working to better understand PFAS’ impacts, there’s a big chance we won’t ever hear about their study findings.
Most of the studies looking at the links between PFAS exposure and human health risks are published without a press release and get little or no media coverage, according to a new study. The researchers said this risks the information not reaching the public and called for scientists and institutions to work better on media outreach.
“It’s a shame that only a small slice of this science is reaching the public,” Rebecca Fuoco, study author, said in a statement. “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.”
Limited media attention
The researchers analyzed 273 peer-reviewed epidemiological studies on the human health impacts of PFAS, published between 2018 and 2020. Among the papers that found a statistically significant link between PFAS and health risks, those with a press release got 20 times more media attention (assessed by Altmetric scores) than those that didn’t.
However, less than 8% of the papers with a statistically significant finding issued a press release, the researchers said. The papers that didn’t include a press release found significant links between PFAS exposure and risks of ovarian and breast cancers, osteoporosis and diabetes. But they received no or very little news coverage.
One of the reasons why research teams may decide not to issue a press release is the perception that there is insufficient career incentive to engage in non-scholarly communications, the researchers said. However, the study showed that papers with a press release had a two-thirds higher citation count than those without press releases.
Another reason is the fear among scientists that media coverage may misrepresent or exaggerate their research. However, previous research has shown that overstatements in the media can often be traced back to university press releases. This suggests that scientists can overcome this issue by taking a more active role in drafting the release.
“I urge scientists and their institutions to embrace media outreach as a critical part of the research process,” Linda Birnbaum, study author, said. “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.”
Overall, the study underscores the importance of effectively communicating scientific findings to the public and the media. Press releases can enhance the visibility and impact of research, leading to recognition within the scientific community and beyond. Overcoming barriers may require changes in academic culture, the researchers said.
The study was published in the journal Environmental Health.