A chemical widely used to sterilize medical devices is also used for nasal swabs in COVID-19 testing. But a viral video misleadingly suggests that the swabs are dangerous — saying that the chemical causes cancer and can alter DNA. Experts say the chemical’s use in this context does not pose a threat to human health.
A chemical routinely used to sterilize medical devices is the focus of a misleading video on social media that questions the safety of the nasal swabs in COVID-19 testing.
In a video viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube and shared more than 5,000 times on Facebook, a woman who identifies herself as a registered nurse and medical investigator suggests that the swabs are dangerous because the packaging indicates that they are sterilized with ethylene oxide.
“I am bringing you today information about the swab — the swab that is used for the current claimed pandemic,” the woman, whose website advocates against vaccines, says. “These swabs are saturated with, coated with, EO — ethylene oxide.”
The woman notes that the Environmental Protection Agency classifies ethylene oxide as a human carcinogen and says that “ethylene oxide is mutagenic, which means it can change the DNA in your cells.”
“We’re being poisoned in every way, shape and form,” she later says in the video.
The video also has been uploaded directly to Facebook and elsewhere online — including on the website BitChute, where a headline reads: “ALL ABOUT THE NASAL SWAB (IT IS DESIGNED TO STERILIZE AND CAUSE CANCER).”
It’s true that the EPA says that “ethylene oxide is carcinogenic to humans by the inhalation route of exposure” and that “[e]vidence in humans indicates that exposure to ethylene oxide increases the risk of lymphoid cancer and, for females, breast cancer.” It also says that “EtO is mutagenic (i.e., it can change the DNA in a cell). Children may be more susceptible to the harmful effects of mutagenic substances.”
But the chemical is widely used to sterilize medical devices — notably those that are sensitive to heat or moisture — in a way that limits residual traces on the products, “since long-term and occupational exposure to ethylene oxide has been linked to cancer,” according to the Food and Drug Administration.
In fact, the FDA notes: “Literature shows that about fifty percent of all sterile medical devices in the U.S. are sterilized with ethylene oxide.”
“The types of devices that are sterilized with ethylene oxide range from devices used in general health care practices (for example, wound dressings) to more specialized devices used to treat specific areas of the body (for example, stents),” the FDA says.
The EPA also says that use of ethylene oxide is “necessary to assure that some types of medical equipment are sterilized for safe use.”
Stuart Batterman, an environmental health sciences professor at the University of Michigan, told us in an email that a “swab is briefly exposed to the gas, then removed and packed. The gas would rapidly disperse. There is no coating or liquid or anything like that on the swab.”
“By the time the swab is used, there’s likely hardly a trace of EO remaining,” he explained. “It is true that this gas is hazardous when breathed in at high enough concentrations for long enough periods. This is not the scenario for the occasional use of a swab.”
On the viral video, he said, “this is fear mongering, what we call a phantom risk — it just isn’t there.”
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over our editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.
Allen-Kinross, Pippa. “Lateral flow tests are not unsafe.” Full Fact. 31 Mar 2021.
Batterman, Stuart. Professor of environmental health sciences, University of Michigan. Email to FactCheck.org. 15 Jun 2021.
Dupuy, Beatrice. “False cancer claim circulates around COVID-19 test.” Associated Press. 31 Mar 2021.
“Ethylene Oxide.” Environmental Protection Agency. Sep 2016.
“Ethylene Oxide ‘Gas’ Sterilization.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 16 Jun 2021.
“Ethylene Oxide Sterilization for Medical Devices.” Food and Drug Administration. Updated 24 Sep 2020.
“Frequent Questions: Basic Information About Ethylene Oxide.” Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed 15 Jun 2021.