A video posted on Facebook suggests that ethylene oxide, a gas used to sterilise lateral flow swabs, will react upon contact with moisture and create deadly antifreeze and that ethylene oxide can immediately cause cancer. The video also claims that the packaging of lateral flow tests from the NHS has been deliberately changed to remove reference to ethylene oxide.
As we have written before, ethylene oxide is a colourless gas which is used to sterilise medical equipment around the world and, although overexposure can be dangerous, its use does not make medical products like lateral flow tests unsafe.
Although the packaging for lateral flow tests has changed, the test kits still make clear that ethylene oxide is used to sterilise the swabs.
The MHRA states: “In the highly unlikely event that a swab does contain a residual amount above the allowable limit, the risk to the user is still considered to be very low.”
Professor Andrea Sella, professor of inorganic chemistry at University College London, previously told us that “there is no conceivable harm that can come from using an item sterilized in this way”.
Chronic exposure to ethylene oxide can be dangerous. Public Health England guidance states inhalation can cause “irritation to eyes, nose and respiratory tract, causing coughing, burning” and in severe cases may also result in “coma, cardiovascular collapse and respiratory arrest”.
According to the US National Cancer Institute, lymphoma and leukemia are most frequently reported cancers associated with occupational exposure to ethylene oxide. Stomach and breast cancers have also been reported.
In the UK, there are exposure limits set by the Health and Safety Executive to protect workers who may interact with the chemical.
Why did the packaging change?
The Department of Health and Social Care confirmed to Full Fact that while the “Sterile-EO” icon was initially on the outside of the kit box, this suggested all testing kit components (not just the swabs) were sterilised with ethylene oxide, which was not the case.
For this reason, the icon was subsequently removed from the outside of the box and only kept on the outer packaging of swabs and among a glossary of symbols in the instructions for use.
And is ethylene oxide the main ingredient in antifreeze?
In short, the ethylene oxide used to sterilise your swab will not harm you. There is unlikely to be any ethylene oxide left on your swab when you use it and even if a very small amount did remain, the moisture from your nose or throat would not combine with it to create antifreeze.
This article is part of our work fact checking potentially false pictures, videos and stories on Facebook. You can read more about this—and find out how to report Facebook content—here.
For the purposes of that scheme, we’ve rated this claim as partly false
because the use of ethylene oxide is controlled within strict safety limits. It does not turn into antifreeze when test swabs are exposed to moisture and it is not the main ingredient in antifreeze. While the packaging for lateral flow tests did change, this was because only the swabs in the package are sterilised in this way.
We can’t sugar coat how difficult this year has been for good information.
News this year has fractured communities, and caused confusion and panic for many of us. No one can control what will happen next. But you can support a debate based on fair, accurate and transparent information.
As independent, impartial fact checkers, we rely on individuals like you to ensure the most dangerously false inaccuracies can be called out and challenged.
Could you chip in to support an accurate and fair debate today?