In the latest example of what I call "science by press release," researchers at the Hohenstein Institute in Germany have issued a press release to publicize the findings of new research which they claim shows that thirdhand smoke carried on the clothing of smokers is hazardous to young children.
There is no published study, no online study, no study of any kind being made available and the researchers have declined to share their study with anyone until it is reviewed by a journal and published. Thus, there is no basis for anyone to evaluate the validity of the reported findings. Meanwhile, however, word of the terrible hazards to babies posed by clothing of smokers is spreading worldwide through the media (for example, this article warns that "toxic substances on clothing could damage health of infants").
To make matters worse still, Action on Smoking and Health has issued its own press release, headlined "Tobacco Smoke Residue Causes Massive Damage in Babies' Skin," which warns that: "Parents who do not smoke in the presence of their children, including even those who smoke only outdoors, nevertheless put their children at serious risk of "massive damage" to both skin and nerve cells, since a neurotoxin in thirdhand tobacco smoke penetrates the child's skin, according to recent research in Germany."
ASH is using the new "study" findings to argue that: "court orders aimed at protecting children from parental smoking may have to be expanded to protect them from the toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke residues which are far higher than in smokey air."
The Hohenstein Institute press release states: "the scientists at the IHB used a specially developed cell culture model of baby skin - a 3D skin model, the cell composition, structure and properties of which imitate the skin of babies and toddlers. To simulate the effects of thirdhand smoke, a T-shirt was deliberately impregnated with nicotine, the main toxic ingredient of cigarettes, just like during a smoker's break on the balcony. So that the quantity of the toxin could be verified afterwards, radioactively marked nicotine was used. Then the smoke-impregnated textiles were placed on the baby skin and the penetration of the nicotine into the skin was tracked in tracer studies. The results produced by the Hohenstein scientists showed for the first time that the neurotoxin nicotine is not only released from clothing by perspiration so that it can be detected in all the layers of baby skin, but it is also transported through the skin into deeper tissue layers." ...
"in the laboratory experiment, the toxins from the cigarette smoke that were dissolved in the perspiration caused massive damage to the skin cells; for example, they changed their shape and even, where the concentration was high, died off. Similarly, nerve cells, which are particularly active during the early stages of development, showed clear changes and were no longer able to connect properly with one another."
The Rest of the Story
Science by press release is inappropriate because the findings are disseminated widely by the media without any opportunity for others to scrutinize the work. The findings must be accepted on faith. Therefore, it is impossible to judge whether the conclusions of the study are valid or not. And if the conclusions turn out to be unwarranted, then it will be too late to reverse them. The media have already disseminated the conclusion widely. Any correction given down the road would have little effect.
In most cases, I believe the results of a scientific study should not be released to the media prior to publication. However, if the results of a study are going to be released to the media, then I believe it is imperative that the study itself be made available for public scrutiny. You can't just release the conclusions, but not the study itself.
Moreover, if the manuscript is going to be submitted for publication, then it may be inappropriate to release the findings to the media prior to publication. Many journals have explicit policies that preclude the authors of submitted manuscripts from releasing the results to the media until publication.
It is problematic that the study authors have apparently released their results and conclusions to the media but that they have not released the full results and methods of the study because without the full methods and results, it is not possible for others in the field to adequately review the work and assess its validity. I personally feel that researchers should not publicize study findings through the media prior to publication unless they are willing to make the full findings and methods available. Releasing results via press release to the media should not be done until publication, or if it needs to be done before publication, then it should only be done with concomitant release of the entire study.
In this case, the science by press release approach does damage. The research itself does not demonstrate that there is any clinically significant effect of a young child being exposed to the clothing of a smoker. While the study examines the effect of residues in a skin cell culture model, it does not demonstrate actual skin damage "in real life." Moreover, the neurotoxicity is only a theoretical concern: the study provides no evidence that actual neurological damage occurs as a result of having contact with the clothes of a smoker.
Of course, this didn't stop ASH from spreading unsupported conclusions widely through the media. ASH proclaims that exposure to the clothing of smokers causes "massive damage" to babies' skin and to their nerve cells as well. This claim is completely unsupported, even by the research cited, because there is no evidence of any clinically significant effect of exposure to smokers' clothing.
Frankly, I'm not even aware of any reports of skin damage to babies caused by direct contact with smoke residues in the presence of active smoking in the home. So the claim that contact with a smoker's clothing is going to cause "massive damage" to the skin is far-fetched and unsupported scientifically.
Sadly, ASH is using this new "study" to urge courts to take draconian measures that are not supported by scientific evidence.
What is clear is that ASH has no interest in actual scientific accuracy or scientific rigor. It is merely interested in disseminating tabloid news that will support its pre-ordained policy agenda.
(Thanks to Michael McFadden for the tip.)