Michael Joyce is a writer-producer with HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce
Here’s an example of what can happen when a study author makes grandiose claims, a news release unabashedly promotes these claims, and a host of reporters run with it because the topic is popular (food allergies) and the affected group is vulnerable (babies).
How baby wipes are making your baby sick (NY Post)
Baby wet wipes ’cause food allergy,’ new study warns (The Telegraph)
These headlines are representative of many covering a study out of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. It investigates a possible skin-based explanation for babies developing allergies to foods they haven’t consumed.
The researchers speculate that the following combination of factors — genetic mutations affecting skin permeability + allergen exposure by caregivers handling children + soapy baby wipes removing a protective oily coating on the skin — all work together to create what the news release labels a “perfect storm” and the lead author calls “a recipe for developing food allergy.”
Problem is the research was done in mice, not humans.
This means the lead author’s statement that the results represent “a major advance in our understanding of how food allergy starts early in life” is simply exaggeration (unless she’s talking about ‘early in life’ for rodents, and even then the study cannot prove causation).
But this didn’t stop the majority of coverage I read — and it was extensive — from parroting this unjustified language almost verbatim.
Kudos to NBC’s Today Show who, despite their provocative headline, made it clear that the role of soapy baby wipes in newborns developing food allergies is “pure speculation.”
[Check out our recently updated toolkit primer on how to approach health claims based on animal and lab studies.]