CheckMate: Does a new study really show that masks are detrimental to human health? (2023)

CheckMate is a weekly newsletter fromRMIT FactLabrecapping the latest in the world of fact checking and misinformation. It draws on the work of FactLab's researchers and journalists, including itsCrossCheckunit, 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

CheckMate: Does a new study really show that masks are detrimental to human health? (1)

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 absenceof 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".

Crucially, Professor Brennecke said that an Australian study referenced by the paper showed a rise in preterm stillbirths only, and not in stillbirths among term pregnancies.

"If the face mask theory was likely to be significant," he said, "you would have expected [that] the women who reached term would also have had an increase in stillbirths, because they've actually been wearing masks longer than the women who were preterm."

The authors of the German paper have alsocome under scrutinyfrom US-based fact checkers at this week for a different paper that suggested long COVID symptoms may actually be the result of mask wearing.

Contrary to the paper's assertion, however, the fact checkers found there was "no evidence that face masks, when used as recommended, have a negative impact on the respiratory system that could lead to any serious health problems".

Finally, the Daily Mail article prominently features a link to another story which alleges that "wearing a mask can expose children to dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in just three minutes".

That story, from July 2021, was based on a research letter that wasretracted by the publishing journal within a month(something made clear by the stamping of a "RETRACTED" watermark repeatedly across theoriginal letter).

CheckMate: Does a new study really show that masks are detrimental to human health? (2)

Do algorithms dream of R&B?

Content generated by artificial intelligence made headlines again this week after a song featuring vocal tracks — sort of — from two of the world's biggest R&B stars took off on social media and streaming apps.

Uploaded to YouTube and Spotify by a user called "Ghostwriter" and clocking up more than 15 million views on TikTok, the song "Heart on my sleeve" usedgenerative AIto mimic the voices of artists The Weeknd and Drake in a collaboration to which neither consented.

While certainly not the first case of an artist's voice being plagiarised by the new technology (one recent example being an AI "Kanye West" covering the Justin Bieber hit Love Yourself),The New York Timeslabelled the Drake controversy "the latest and loudest example of a grey-area genre that has exploded in recent months" — namely, the creation of homemade tracks that use AI "to conjure familiar sounds that can be passed off as authentic, or at least close enough".

"It earned instant comparisons to earlier technologies that disrupted the music industry, including the dawn of the synthesiser, the sampler and the file-sharing service Napster," the article noted.

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Universal Music Group, the label representing both artists, took a dim view, however, as it swooped in to have the tracks removed from platforms.

In a statement, Universal said using its artists' music to train AI algorithms not only breached copyright law but also foreshadowed a reckoning in the music industry in which people would need to choose "which side of history" they were on: "the side of artists, fans and human creative expression, or … the side of deep fakes, fraud and denying artists their due compensation".

Looking beyond the art world, AI also made its first major foray into the US presidential election, with the Republican Party incorporating a series of AI-generated images into a new 2024 campaign video attacking President Joe Biden.

Alex Thompson, national political correspondent for the US news website Axios,wrote in a tweetthat the video was the party's first to use 100 per cent AI-generated images.

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It attempts to paint a dystopian picture of how the future might look if "the weakest president we've ever had were re-elected", suggesting it could include war over Taiwan, collapsing financial systems and escalating crime.

Why there's more to the story with Peter Dutton's gender pay gap claim

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has been busily spruiking a long list of plans for the future as well as the Coalition's recent achievements, including its record on women's economic issues.

"Under Labor, the gender pay gap was at 17.4 per cent and reduced to 13.8 per cent on our watch," Mr Duttontoldthe national summit of the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia on April 4.

But RMIT ABC Fact Check this week found there'smore to the storythan Mr Dutton's claim suggests.

Indeed, the gender pay gap was at 17.4 per cent when Labor left office in late 2013.

The pay gap also fell steadily during most of the Coalition's time in government, reaching 13.8 per cent in November 2021 (although it did rise again in the months prior to the May 2022 election and stood at 14.1 per cent when the Coalition was ousted).

That said, the gap also peaked during the Coalition's nine-year reign at 18.7 per cent, which was higher than at any time during the Rudd-Gillard or Howard governments.

Moreover, since the election of the Albanese government, the pay gap has fallen to a historical low of 13.3 per cent.

Experts told Fact Check that changes in the gender pay gap were mostly driven by wider economic conditions, but government policy could also play its part in addressing the issue.

Edited by Ellen McCutchanand David Campbell

Got a fact that needs checking? Tweet us@ABCFactCheckor send us an email


What are the negative psychological effects of wearing masks? ›

As a result, processes such as facial mimicry, which are crucial for social interaction, are impaired when one is interacting with a masked individual (Kastendieck et al. 2021). Masking affects the perception of some expressions more than others, as certain parts of the face are more important for different emotions.

Is it wrong to wear a mask? ›

It's totally fine to keep wearing a mask if it makes you feel more comfortable – even if you live where there's low community transmission and you don't have health risks for severe COVID-19.

Does greater belief in science predict mask wearing behavior during COVID-19? ›

We found evidence that greater belief in science predicted greater belief in the effectiveness of face masks reducing the transmission of COVID-19, which in turn predicted more reported face mask wearing behavior in public, controlling for sociodemographic factors.

Is there a benefit to wearing a mask? ›

A mask can help to block some air pollution particles that you might otherwise inhale, which is why people who work with dust, debris and other pollutants often wear them. Some masks are better than others at keeping pollution particles out, Peltier notes — he recommends an N95.

Can wear mask cause anxiety? ›

Some people become anxious when wearing a face mask or just thinking about wearing a face mask. This would be what some are calling face mask anxiety. But it is important to remember that the mask is NOT causing the anxiety. The person's perceptions about the mask are what lead the brain to become anxious.

Do masks cause social anxiety? ›

“It creates, not only a physical barrier, but masks create a psychological barrier,” she said. “It feels like it can be a guard or a shield against people who looks, their stares or evaluation." Dr. Albers said many people with social anxiety fear the day when it's appropriate to go out without the mask.

How long should you wear a face mask skincare? ›

Most masks, except those labeled as overnight, should be worn for no more than 20 minutes at a time. If you wear them longer, they'll begin to dry out and dry out your skin.

What is emotional masking? ›

Masking may disguise emotions considered socially inappropriate within a situational context, such as anger, jealousy, or rage. Individuals may mask in certain social situations, such as job interviews or dates, or around people of different cultures, identities, or ethnicities.

Are facial masks safe for kids? ›

The vast majority of children age 2 or older can safely wear face masks for extended periods of time, such as during preschool or at child care. This includes most children with special health care needs.

What are the effects of face masks on person perception? ›

Recent studies have found that masks pose a considerable challenge to face perception among adult populations, producing consistent deficits in face recognition abilities and leading to reduced holistic processing (Carragher & Hancock, 2020; Freud et al., 2020, 2022).

What is the effect of face masks on facial emotion recognition? ›

In all experiments, facial emotion recognition (FER) was about 20% worse for masked faces than for unmasked ones (68% correct vs. 88%). The impairment was largest for disgust, followed by fear, surprise, sadness, and happiness.

Is masking a result of trauma? ›

Masked trauma are those traumatic events, histories, and symptoms which are hidden, i.e. not clearly evident to clients, providers/caregivers, and/or significant others.

What causes Maskaphobia? ›

In many cases, masklophobia originates from a negative or traumatic experience, which is known as a direct learning experience or traumatic conditioning. The event that caused the traumatic conditioning may not actually have involved real danger or real risk.


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