Understanding Public Perceptions of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances: Infodemiology Study of Social Media

By Hao Tian, Christy Gaines, Lori Launi, Ana Pomales, Germaine Vazquez, Amanda Goharian, Bradley Goodnight, Erica Haney, Christopher M. Reh, and Rachel D. Rogers
J Med Internet Res
March 21, 2022
DOI: 10.2196/25614

Background:Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are environmental contaminants that have received significant public attention. PFAS are a large group of human-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s. Human exposure to PFAS is a growing public health concern. Studies suggest that exposure to PFAS may increase the risk of some cancers and have negative health impacts on the endocrine, metabolic, and immune systems. Federal and state health partners are investigating the exposure to and possible health effects associated with PFAS. Government agencies can observe social media discourse on PFAS to better understand public concerns and develop targeted communication and outreach efforts.

Objective:The primary objective of this study is to understand how social media is used to share, disseminate, and engage in public discussions of PFAS-related information in the United States.

Methods:We investigated PFAS-related content across 2 social media platforms between May 1, 2017, and April 30, 2019, to identify how social media is used in the United States to seek and disseminate PFAS-related information. Our key variable of interest was posts that mentioned “PFAS,” “PFOA,” “PFOS,” and their hashtag variations across social media platforms. Additional variables included post type, time, PFAS event, and geographic location. We examined term use and post type differences across platforms. We used descriptive statistics and regression analysis to assess the incidence of PFAS discussions and to identify the date, event, and geographic patterns. We qualitatively analyzed social media content to determine the most prevalent themes discussed on social media platforms.

Results:Our analysis revealed that Twitter had a significantly greater volume of PFAS-related posts compared with Reddit (98,264 vs 3126 posts). PFAS-related social media posts increased by 670% over 2 years, indicating a marked increase in social media users’ interest in and awareness of PFAS. Active engagement varied across platforms, with Reddit posts demonstrating more in-depth discussions compared with passive likes and reposts among Twitter users. Spikes in PFAS discussions were evident and connected to the discovery of contamination events, media coverage, and scientific publications. Thematic analysis revealed that social media users see PFAS as a significant public health concern and seek a trusted source of information about PFAS-related public health efforts.

Conclusions:The analysis identified a prevalent theme—on social media, PFAS are perceived as an immediate public health concern, which demonstrates a growing sense of urgency to understand this emerging contaminant and its potential health impacts. Government agencies can continue using social media research to better understand the changing community sentiment on PFAS and disseminate targeted information and then use social media as a forum for dispelling misinformation, communicating scientific findings, and providing resources for relevant public health services.


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