The False Idea That Masks Make You Sicker

It’s not clear how OSHA got roped into this. Part of the Department of Labor, the agency primarily concerns itself with safe working conditions, rather than pandemic responses. People who don’t want to do something, like wear masks, will often glom onto quasi-scientific rationalizations, says Matt Motta, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University who studies online misinformation.

Outside of Facebook, a June 18 article on a site called GreenMedInfo claims that “OSHA says masks don’t work—and violate OSHA oxygen levels.” The article consists mainly of a video by Peggy Hall, the founder of an anti-mask site called thehealthyamerican.org, explaining how “the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational and Safety and Health Administration’s guidelines clearly show cloth and surgical masks don’t work to reduce transmission of COVID-19, and how they deplete the body of oxygen, causing adverse health effects.” (In response to a request for comment, an OSHA spokesperson told me that this is not true, and that masks do not compromise oxygen levels or cause carbon dioxide buildup.)

The video is no longer available, and when I emailed Hall, she said it had been taken down. “My now-banned videos simply explained that OSHA, the FDA and the CDC all have no evidence of masks preventing the spread of this virus,” Hall wrote. (They do.) “Since they are making the claim, the burden of proof is on those agencies to show that the masks DON’T make anyone sick.” This is, of course, a completely different statement than the one made in the article. And indeed, a few days later, the fact-checking site PolitiFact debunked Hall’s article, too.

Before that, anti-mask articles and advocates would occasionally claim that masks made people sick, but they rarely invoked OSHA. A Chattanooga, Tennessee, news station in early June claimed, “Wearing a fabric mask for long periods of time—or for several days at a time—can allow bacteria to build up and actually make you sick,” but didn’t cite any research or experts to back the claim. In May, a group of filmmakers released a video titled Plandemic, which traveled widely on social media. It featured the discredited researcher Judy Mikovitz saying, among other things, that masks can make people sick. Plandemic was viewed millions of times before Facebook and YouTube removed it. (Mikovitz did not respond to a request for comment.)

These videos and articles all came months after government officials had begun encouraging—and then mandating—that people wear masks in public. But crucial to understanding the spread of this particular piece of misinformation is that, for many weeks early in the pandemic, everyday people were told not to wear masks. Back then, prominent experts claimed masks were needed for health-care workers and were borderline ineffective for the general public. Versions of this advice also suggested that masks could raise the risk of illness. On March 12, Jenny Harries, England’s deputy chief medical officer, claimed that masks could “actually trap the virus.” Therefore, she said, “for the average member of the public walking down a street, it is not a good idea.” (Harries did not respond to a request for comment.)

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