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False cancer claim circulates around COVID-19 test

March 31, 2021 GMT

CLAIM: COVID-19 tests cause cancer because they are sterilized with ethylene oxide. 

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Ethylene oxide is a gas commonly used to sterilize medical equipment. It is also used in the sterilization of spices and cosmetics. While it is listed by federal agencies as a carcinogen with long-term exposure, experts say the gas is used only in small amounts to sterilize COVID testing kits and would not present cancer hazard. 

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THE FACTS: A video being shared online is claiming that nose swab tests used for COVID-19 detection contain an ingredient that causes cancer. 

In the video, a man illustrates the point using COVID-19 at home test kit from the National Health Service of the United Kingdom. He asserts that because the box includes a label that the kit was sterilized with ethylene oxide, the product will cause cancer. 

“They are purposely killing us,” the man says. “It is one of the worst, worst chemicals for causing cancer and people are sticking it up their kids’ noses to get them into school.”

But ethylene oxide is not a component of the test. Dr. Alexander Edwards, an associate professor in biomedical technology at the University of Reading in England, told The Associated Press that the gas is used in the sterilization process because it does not affect the product like heat or steam would when used in the sterilization process. 

“It’s not going to be present in any meaningful way at the time that you actually opened your test,” Edwards said. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ethylene oxide is often used to sterilize medical equipment that are moisture or heat sensitive. 

Posts making the false claims about ethylene oxide were shared on TikTok, Facebook and Instagram. 

“Did you know the con-vid 19 swab test contains a highly carcinogenic sterilizer called ethylene oxide? The most toxic cancer causing substance ever produced,” one Facebook said. 

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The Department of Health and Social Care of the United Kingdom addressed the falsehood on Facebook. 

“There are false and misleading reports that lateral flow tests can give you cancer,” the post said. “These rapid #COVID19 tests have been rigorously tested and are safe.”

The U.S. Food and Drug administration created strict standards for the use of ethylene oxide on medical devices after it was found that the gas could cause cancer with long-term and occupational exposure.

In the U.S., health care facilities that use the gas are monitored by state health officials, according to the FDA

But experts say there is no concern about the gas being left on COVID-19 tests. 

“It is not something that would linger on the product,” Edwards said. 

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536