The study, published in a prestigious American medical journal, was scrutinized by experts immediately — but that didn't stop it from spreading across conservative media.
A study pushed by the conservative-leaning Fox News, which claimed face masks were harmful to children, has since been retracted over concerns about its validity and research methods.
The study was promoted on Fox News host Tucker Carlson's popular nightly program on July 1. Carlson began his nightly cable program as he often does these days, with a screed against public health measures implemented to keep Americans safe during the pandemic.
Policies calling for mask-wearing among unvaccinated children are a "complete disaster," Carlson told his audience of over 3 million viewers.
Of youth mask mandates, he added, "It was a human tragedy, in fact, on a vast scale, and it is a living testament to the recklessness of our leaders."
Carlson then pointed to a new research letter in the prestigious "Pediatrics" publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association, which claimed there was evidence of increased levels of inhaled carbon dioxide among children who wore face masks.
"May that image live forever as a testament to how insane this country went over the last year," Carlson said later in his program, images of children practicing band instruments in small tents, set up to ensure their safety, flashing across the screen.
"Slowly asphyxiating America's children," he claimed. "That's what it was."
That letter has since been pulled.
JAMA retracted the study on Friday, posting a short editor's note which identified "numerous scientific issues" with it, including methodological problems and concerns about the "validity of the study conclusions."
"Given fundamental concerns about the study methodology, uncertainty regarding the validity of the findings and conclusions, and the potential public health implications, the editors have retracted this Research Letter," a JAMA editor wrote.
But by that time, the idea that there was supposed proof of the dangers of youth mask-wearing had already taken off, spreading across conservative news sites and on social media, where articles about it received tens of thousands of interactions, according to data from the monitoring platform CrowdTangle.
"When I saw that this translated to people literally saying the AMA [American Medical Association] — kind of the country's most reputable medical brand — is saying 'masks aren't safe,' that's when I realized how pervasive the misinformation is," Dr. Kavita Patel, a primary care physician who served as an adviser to former President Barack Obama's administration on health policy matters, said in a phone interview.
Representatives for Fox News did not respond to an inquiry about the retraction, and whether the new information contradicting Carlson's conclusions would be relayed to Carlson's audience.
'Incorrect, distorted, and dangerous conclusions'
The original research letter seemed straightforward enough, described as a "randomized clinical trial" exploring the carbon dioxide content of inhaled air with and without two different types of face coverings among a group of 45 healthy German children.
"Many governments have made nose and mouth covering or face masks compulsory for schoolchildren," authors Dr. Harald Walach, Dr. Ronald Weikl, and Juliane Prentice wrote in their introduction.
"The evidence base for this is weak," they alleged, hence their desire to study the impact of masks on children's breathing.
After taking baseline measurements of the carbon dioxide levels in children's inhalations without masks on, they measured those levels again while the kids wore different types of masks, checking carbon dioxide levels in their inhaled air, exhaled air, and a joint measurement.
Their supposed findings appeared startling: After just three minutes of mask-wearing, carbon dioxide levels had grown to six times what German health officials said were safe for children. Moreover, their data showed that the younger the child was, the higher their carbon dioxide levels grew.
"We suggest that decision-makers weigh the hard evidence produced by these experimental measurements accordingly, which suggest that children should not be forced to wear face masks," the authors concluded.
Yet almost immediately after it was published, the study faced skepticism from scientists and other public health professionals about its methodology and conclusions.
As a research letter, it was shorter than scholarly article, containing less background and supplementary information than a formal study would include. As such, some felt the study lacked detail about how it was actually testing the questions it purported to explore.
"The lack of methodological detail makes it unclear as to why the researchers concluded that they were measuring the concentration of inhaled CO2 as opposed to the concentration of exhaled CO2 or a mix of both," Dr. John Murphy of the University of Toronto posted in the letter's "Comments" section.
"[T]his paper misinterprets inappropriately collected data leading to incorrect, distorted, and dangerous conclusions," concluded Dr. Eve Bloomgarden of Northwestern University.
In the note announcing the retraction, JAMA editor Dr. Phil B. Fontanarosa said the journal reached out to study's authors to ask about these mounting criticisms, yet "the authors did not provide sufficiently convincing evidence to resolve these issues, as determined by editorial evaluation and additional scientific review."
Reached by email, Walach — the lead author of the study — wrote that he and his coauthors "stand by our paper."
"There is no clear characterization of what is wrong, only very vague and unsubstatiated [sic] accusations of a lack of validity," Walach added.
Walach, meanwhile, was behind another viral study in the journal Vaccines which falsely claimed that fatal side effects from coronavirus vaccines killed two people for every three it saved. After uproar from the scientific community, the journal retracted that study, pointing to "several errors that fundamentally affect the interpretation of the findings."
Despite the conclusions of Walach's now-retracted letter, experts across the board agree: Masks save lives, and the benefits of wearing them far outweigh any possible risks.
Though study of masks' impacts on children remain limited, a meta-analysis of studies published in early 2021 which explored the impact of mask-wearing on children and adults concluded that "face masks commonly used during the pandemic did not impair gas exchange during rest or mild exercise."
Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that children over age two who are unvaccinated wear masks in indoor settings to protect themselves and others from coronavirus transmission.
Given the consensus among scientists and governments, it remains unclear how Walach's flawed article was published in JAMA in the first place.
Fontanarosa, the JAMA editor who posted the retraction of Walach's mask article, did not respond to inquiries about how and why the research letter was published, given the concerns about its methodology and need for accurate public health information amid the pandemic.
"When I opened the Journal of the American Medical Association, I don't generally question it," Patel said. She noted that while there remains a strong public interest to publish research about the pandemic quickly, it's equally important to ensure that which is published undergoes scientific scrutiny.
"I think that my lesson is that you should question everything," Patel added. "Especially in these days of pre-print publications, question everything."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.