A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Viral NASA Story Gets Science Wrong


Q: Is NASA “spraying Americans with lithium and other chemicals”?

A: No. The space agency uses such materials, which are also used in fireworks, in the upper atmosphere – way above where planes fly. Experts say it’s “extremely unlikely” even “a minute amount” would reach Earth’s surface.

FULL ANSWER

A persisting conspiracy theory of “bio-warfare against the world’s citizenry” has been shared thousands of times on Facebook this month. And while some users on the social media site rightfully flagged it as potentially false, others continued to spread and treat it as fact.

The story — headlined “NASA ADMITS To Spraying Americans With Lithium & Other Chemicals” — claims that “NASA is spraying lithium, a pharmaceutical drug most often used to treat people with manic depression or bi-polar disorder, into our ionosphere.” It was posted on asheepnomore.net and has been published on other websites since at least 2016.

But the chemtrail-like theory is a gross misrepresentation of NASA’s actual work.

It’s true that NASA does occasionally use lithium and other chemicals in the upper atmosphere, but not in the way the false stories described.

The agency’s Sounding Rockets Program, which uses rockets to carry scientific instruments into the air, deploys the chemicals as “vapor tracers” to observe “movements of the upper atmosphere or the ionosphere.” The ionosphere, above the ozone layer, begins nearly 50 miles above the Earth. By contrast, cruising altitude for commercial flights is typically about 7 miles.

“These vapors when they’re released are very small — they ionize and you end up with these huge clouds,” explains Keith Koehler, a spokesman at NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, which oversees the program. “They quickly dissipate.”

The tests can help scientists understand activity in the ionosphere, through which satellite signals travel, and understand solar winds, Koehler told FactCheck.org. NASA points out that the vapor tracers aren’t harmful and are the same chemicals used in fireworks. “A typical Fourth of July fireworks display releases many times that amount and is much closer to the ground,” according to the agency, which says the tracers typically release about a pound of material.

Of the roughly 25 sounding rockets launched each year, Koehler said, usually one or two release the tracers.

Thomas P. Ackerman, director of the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington, told us the conspiracy theory is nonsensical.

The idea of spraying people with a material from the ionosphere — given its distance and conditions — wouldn’t work. He said it’s “extremely unlikely” for chemicals dispersed at that height to reach Earth’s surface because of how they interact in the atmosphere.

The ionosphere, he said, “is a hostile environment in terms of the material you put there being struck by these high-energy particles in the solar spectrum.” And the atmosphere’s movement would spread the material across the globe, diluting it and rendering it ineffective.

“If you want to spray a crop with pesticide … they fly right on top of the crop,” he said. “On any rationale thought process, it doesn’t make sense.”

Plus, Koehler noted in a follow-up email that “the amount of metallic materials used in the vapor tracer studies is extremely small compared to the amount of material that enters the Earth’s atmosphere daily from meteors.”

“Even if a minute amount from a vapor tracer were to reach the ground it would be extremely negligible,” he said.

The false story accurately states that lithium — an element found in Earth’s crust with many uses, including to make batteries — is used to treat people with illnesses such as bipolar disorder (more specifically, the carbonate salt of lithium is used in such treatment). But the story then goes on to claim that “the power structure” aspires to “alter our neurochemistry.”

The falsehoods don’t stop there: The article cites a study in The New England Journal of Medicine that tested “aerosolized vaccines” against measles, but that treatment was administered to children through a face mask — not by some mass air operation, as the story implies.

Attempts to reach the listed author of the dubious story were unsuccessful.

The claims about NASA are related to what’s known as the chemtrails theory, a debunked belief that the condensation trails left behind in the sky by airplanes are actually chemical releases by the government.

Public Policy Polling in a 2013 survey found that 5 percent of American voters believed the chemtrails theory. Three years later, another study found that about 10 percent of Americans deemed the theory “completely” true.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to help identify and label false stories flagged by readers on the social media network.

Sources

Ackerman, Thomas P. Director, Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 28 Mar 2018.

Chemtrails Conspiracy Theory.” The Keith Group, Harvard University. Accessed 28 Mar 2018.

Democrats and Republicans differ on conspiracy theory beliefs.” Press release. Public Policy Polling. 2 Apr 2013.

Haelle, Tara. “Measles Aerosol Vaccine Works — But Not Quite Well Enough.” Forbes. 20 Apr 2015.

International travel and health.” World Health Organization. Accessed 28 Mar 2018.

Koehler, Keith. Spokesman, NASA Wallops Flight Facility. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 23 Mar 2018.

Lithium Carbonate.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Accessed 28 Mar 2018.

Low, Nicola, M.D., et. al. “A Randomized, Controlled Trial of an Aerosolized Vaccine against Measles.” The New England Journal of Medicine. 16 Apr 2015.

Sarich, Christina. “NASA ADMITS To Spraying Americans With Lithium & Other Chemicals.” 14 Nov 2017.

Sounding Rockets. NASA. Accessed 27 Mar 2018.

Tarascon, Jean-Marie. “Is lithium the new gold?” Nature Chemistry. 1 Jun 2010.

Tingley, Dustin and Wagner, Gernot. “Solar geoengineering and the chemtrails conspiracy on social media.” Palgrave Communications. 31 Oct 2017.

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“NASA ADMITS To Spraying Americans With Lithium & Other Chemicals”
Tuesday, November 14, 2017