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No sufficient data available to back up Iowa governor's claim that masks are harmful to children

After saying there is "data" to prove wearing face masks can be harmful to children, Reynolds' office was unable to share scientific studies to support claim.

DES MOINES, Iowa — After saying there is evidence to prove wearing face masks can be harmful to children, Gov. Kim Reynolds' office was unable to share scientific studies to support the claim Thursday.

After multiple requests, her staff did send Local 5 links to opinion pieces published that do support the claim. They also sent links to studies that conclude that masks' effectiveness is "inconclusive" but no studies showing they cause harm.

Here is what Reynolds said Thursday after being asked if Iowa children should wear masks in schools:

"I believe, parents can visit with their doctors and then they will make an informed decision on what's the best thing for their child and that's where I believe that it needs to stay. ... There's also parents [that have had] adverse reactions or kids who have had severe [adverse] reactions to the mask, so you have to balance both at that, again ... it's law, we'll start there.

Parents understand and know the health of their children, they'll know what they need to do. They are the best person, an individual, to decide that course of action for their children. And that applies ... in both cases, so if you're a parent, where that mask adversely affects your child or their capability to be able to learn. There's data on both sides that support mask and the effects, the negative effects, of masks. And so they're going to have to take that information, just like vaccines, and make an informed decision as to what is best for their child."

The governor's office sent Local 5 two online articles that touch on the potential harm of masks, one from The Atlantic—"The Downsides of Masking Young Students Are Real"—and another from the Wall Street Journal, "The Case Against Masks for Children". Neither cited scientific data or studies.

"Masks can cause severe acne and other skin problems," Marty Makary and H. Cody Meissner write for the Wall Street Journal. "By increasing airway resistance during exhalation, masks can lead to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. And masks can be vectors for pathogens if they become moist or are used for too long."

"Newly released results from a large trial in rural Bangladesh found that the widespread use of surgical masks by adults yields a significant reduction in the spread of symptomatic COVID-19. (The effect of cloth masks was more ambiguous, and the study did not include children.)," The Atlantic writes. "But the issue facing educators and parents is whether a policy of mandatory masking makes school safer than a policy of optional masking—and whether the difference is enough to justify the imposition on kids."

The direct assertions regarding kids and potential harms while wearing masks are not cited with medical or scientific data.

And the claim that kids wearing masks can lead to increased levels of CO2 in the blood has not been proven to be true.

IDPH interim director Kelly Garcia declined to comment on the governor's claim.

RELATED: Ankeny school board member receives anti-mask, anti-vaccine mailer

RELATED: Your questions, answered: Bringing kids back to school during COVID

In short, no sufficient data was provided to support the governor's claim. 

Dr. Jessica Zuzga-Reed, a pediatric critical care physician with MercyOne Des Moines, tells Local 5 "there are no peer-reviewed studies looking at masks and children that demonstrate harm."

Dr. Zuzga-Reed acknowledged that searching through the internet for information can oftentimes be confusing.

"It is very challenging for parents today who are inundated with information from all different types of sources to sift through and know what is truth," she said. "Especially when we are presented with ideas that are not necessarily scientific...or are opinions."

She said even though wearing masks can cause frustration for some families, it's still the safest way to protect children from COVID-19.

"We as pediatricians, we as physicians want children in school. We want them to be gaining their education we want them to socialize, we want them to be with their peers. That is what children need," said Dr. Zuzga-Reed. "But to do that safely, to keep them from being ill, so they have to be at home or in the hospital, masking is the number one way in which we can protect children who are ineligible for the vaccine."

 Local 5 searched for any data on the matter. Here's what we found:

An International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health review noted prolonged wearing of masks could have "statistically significant" impacts on blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. 

It's important to note that this review is not in itself a scientific study where authors collected their own data; rather, it is an analysis of existing literature when searching for terms “face masks”, “surgical mask” and “N95” in combination with the terms “risk” and “adverse effects” as well as “side effects”. 

The review references:  

  • A 2020 German PsychArchives survey showing masks can cause anxiety and "psycho-vegetative stress reaction" in kids.
  • A 2019 study in Singapore noting an increase in "inspiratory and expiratory CO2 levels" in children; however, the study used pediatric-grade N95 masks instead of the cloth masks more commonly seen in classrooms
  • A December 2018 study on the long-term effects of elevated CO2 levels in the body 

"Slightly elevated CO2 levels are known to increase heart rate, blood pressure, headache, fatigue and concentration disorders," the review states.

The thought that CO2 levels in children go up because of masks, however, has been dispelled by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.

A June 2021 research letter published online in JAMA Pediatrics titled "Experimental Assessment of Carbon Dioxide Content in Inhaled Air With or Without Face Masks in  Healthy Children: A Randomized Clinical Trial" was later retracted due to the study's methodology concerns.

Of course, masks aren't feasible for everyone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says those with certain disabilities and children under two may not benefit from wearing masks. 

The CDC doesn't mention how masks may be harmful to the general population or school children. Those with any concerns about how masks may impact their children are encouraged to talk to their doctor.

WATCH: Gov. Kim Reynolds' COVID-19 press conference (Sept. 2, 2021)

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