As anyone who has gotten a COVID-19 test can confirm, having a swab stuck up your nose is not a pleasant experience. Most people experience discomfort and watery eyes, though the sensation doesn't last long.
But a TikTok video circulating on social media claims the nasal swabs used for COVID-19 testing could cause lasting harm, potentially even cancer. Flocked Swab
"This is a COVID-19 testing swab. This is what goes in your nose when they test for COVID-19," says an unidentified individual in a July 7 video holding an unopened pouch with a cotton swab made by COPAN Diagnostics, a manufacturer of laboratory products.
A finger points to a symbol on the pouch reading "Sterile EO," which refers to ethylene oxide.
"Google ‘ethylene oxide effects on humans’ and you’ll find out it’s a cancer-causing element through the inhalation passage. This doesn’t belong anywhere near your nose. Do with it what you will," the individual says.
The TikTok video has amassed nearly 10,000 interactions on Facebook but is not the only one claiming COVID-19 nasal swabs are unsafe. Videos shared to Facebook in March and June this year also raised fears of cancer and risk to "your DNA & fertility."
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The videos are right about one thing: Ethylene oxide, a colorless, sweet-smelling gas commonly used to sterilize medical devices and products, is a carcinogen as classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But a nasal swab contains very little to no ethylene oxide and is highly unlikely to spur serious illness in anyone getting a COVID-19 test.
USA TODAY has reached out to the Facebook users for comment.
Ethylene oxide was first developed in the early 19th century but wasn't commonly used as a chemical sterilizer in health care settings until the 1950s.
The process involves exposing a medical product, like a nasal swab, to the gas while it's in a chamber and then aerating, or "air washing," for several hours to remove any residual traces of ethylene oxide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"(Ethylene oxide) is absorbed by many materials. For this reason, following sterilization the item must undergo aeration to remove residual (ethylene oxide)," the agency said on its website, detailing guidelines for disinfection and sterilization in health care facilities.
By the time the nasal swab has been fully aerated and is ready for packaging, "there's likely hardly a trace of (ethylene oxide) remaining," Stuart Batterman, an environmental health sciences professor at the University of Michigan, told FactCheck.org in June.
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Ethylene oxide is capable of destroying viruses, bacteria and fungi by reacting with the microbes' DNA and other proteins they rely on to survive. For the gas to be hazardous to us humans, we would need to be exposed to high concentrations of it for long enough periods of time, not from the occasional use of a swab, Batterman said.
Most reports involving ethylene exposure and cancer are associated with people who work in or live near facilities with significant ethylene oxide emissions.
A 2016 study investigating the effects of ethylene oxide on rayon and cotton swabs used in DNA collection found the amount of gas remaining was well below measurable levels three weeks post-sterilization.
About 50% of all medical devices, ranging from wound dressings to stents, are sterilized with ethylene oxide, according to the EPA. This is because, while there are other sterilization methods like heat, steam or radiation, some medical devices can't tolerate those conditions.
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Before any medical product can go on the market, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration evaluates whether the sterilization method used "is in accordance with internationally agreed upon voluntary consensus," an agency spokesperson told USA TODAY in an emailed statement.
"These standards help ensure levels of ethylene oxide on medical devices are within safe limits since long-term and occupational exposure to ethylene oxide has been linked to cancer."
Amanda Schmidt, marketing director of COPAN Diagnostics, which makes the nasal swabs seen in the TikTok video, agreed, telling USA TODAY "medical devices sterilized by (ethylene oxide) are subjected to rigorous controls before being placed on the market to ensure they are safe to use."
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim COVID-19 testing swabs are unsafe because they're sterilized with ethylene oxide. Ethylene oxide is a gas widely used to sterilize medical devices and products. It can have a carcinogenic effect if an individual is exposed to high concentrations of ethylene oxide for long periods of time, but experts say there is no danger from the brief use of a nasal swab with a negligible remnant of the substance.
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Antigen Test Kit Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.