Less Than 8% of Research on "Forever Chemicals" Makes the News, Study Finds

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Jul. 18 2023, Published 1:13 p.m. ET

Two women in lab coats work in a lab
Source: iStock

It feels like every day, there's another study about the harms of PFAS — and the Green Matters editorial team reports on as many of these studies as we possibly can. However, that's apparently not making a dent large enough, because according to yet another study about PFAS, most research about the hazards of PFAS goes unpublicized.

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In fact, of all the studies analyzed, each of which looked at the link between PFAS exposure and human health harms, less than 8 of them even had a press release.

If that's the case, then why does it feel like we're constantly being inundated with more research and articles about the "forever chemicals" known as PFAS? Let's discuss.

A hand tosses a nonstick pan with vegetables over a stove.
Source: iStock

Teflon pans are known for containing PFAS.

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A new study analyzes the media reach of studies about PFAS and human health.

The study, published on July 18, 2023 in the journal Environmental Health, was led by researchers at the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, Calif.

Overall, the team set out to evaluate how PFAS research is communicated to the public and to the scholarly community, as well as to provide guidance for those who want to publicize PFAS research.

To conduct the study, the researchers looked at all of the peer-reviewed epidemiological studies about the impacts of PFAS on human health published between 2018 and 2020, that were included in the PFAS-Tox Database. There were a total of 273 studies.

For each study, they analyzed a few factors, including:

  • If a press release was issued
  • If the study was open-access (free to the public)
  • If the press release/study's abstract was easy to understand
  • What journal it was published in
  • The sample size
  • What day of the week the study was published
  • Amount of scholarly citations (how many scholarly peers reviewed the study)
  • The Altmetric Attention Score (which measures media coverage of research).
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In the end, the researchers found that only 6.2 percent of all the papers analyzed — and 7.8 percent of "significant" papers — issued a press release at all. The team also found that issuing a press release was "by far the most important factor determining media attention."

Perhaps the timespan of studies analyzed for the paper (2018-2020) is what accounts for these low percentages. I wonder, if the researchers repeated this experiment using data from studies between the years 2021 and 2023, if the percentages would be higher. As a journalist who often writes about PFAS, it has definitely felt like coverage of PFAS studies has increased since 2020.

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Carpets rolled up
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Research has found various carpets and rugs to contain PFAS.

Interestingly, the studies that got more media attention were those that featured abstracts and press releases with better "readability," as well as those that issued the press release more immediately after publishing the study.

The studies that did not have press releases typically received very little — if any – media coverage.

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“It’s a shame that only a small slice of this science is reaching the public,” lead author Rebecca Fuoco said in a statement shared with Green Matters. “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 researchers relied on Altmetric Attention Scores for analyzing the reach of studies.

When looking at the Altmetric Attention Scores of these studies, the researchers found that the studies that were publicized with a press release had about 20 times more media attention than those without press releases.

In addition, the researchers found that having more scholarly citations was "positively correlated" with things like media coverage, having a press release, and the study being open-access.

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Furthermore, the day of the week the study was published had an impact on its media attention, with studies published on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays receiving the most press (likely since there are far more reporters working on weekdays than weekends).

They also found that the sooner the press release was posted after the study was published also helped get a study more press (likely since news editors determine a study to be more relevant the more recently it was publsihed).

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The study includes recommendations for getting more press on scientific papers.

“I urge scientists and their institutions to embrace media outreach as a critical part of the research process,” added co-author Linda Birnbaum in a statement sent to Green Matters. “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.”

At the end of the study, the authors shared a few recommendations for researchers who want their study on PFAS (or anything, really) to get more public attention.

For one thing, they urge researchers to speak with the press office (or other press experts) at their university or institution, to determine if a press release is worthwhile. They note that despite all of the findings of this paper, not every scientific paper actually warrants a press release.

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If public relations experts believe a press release could be valuable, they then recommend five things: Have a professional press team design and implement a press strategy; share the press release with journalists under embargo ahead of the study and press release's publication date; ask your journal to publish your study on either Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday; make sure your abstract is easy to read and understand by those who are not scholars; and publish the study open-access, so more people can read it.

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The Green Science Policy Institute also has a Communications Strategy page on its website with templates, videos, and other guidance for researchers who want to better publicize their work.

As a journalist on the other side of these studies, I have to agree with these recommendations. Personally, I'm more likely to cover a study if it is open-access, comes with an easy-to-read press release and abstract, and if it is published on a weekday. (To be honest, the study this very article is about easily checked off all these boxes, which certainly influenced my decision to write it!)

But most importantly, the study must be interesting, and something that we think Green Matters' audience want to read. And since our readers have made it clear that human health risks associated with PFAS exposure is something they care about, we'll continue to cover this sort of research.

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