Chemical used to sterilize Covid-19 tests will not turn into deadly antifreeze

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September 30, 2021

What was claimed

Ethylene oxide, used to sterilize lateral flow tests, is lethal and turns into antifreeze when used.

Our verdict

Although large amounts of ethylene oxide can be dangerous, the amount used to sterilize the tests is minimal and rated against strict safety standards. There is no ethylene oxide left after the tests are wrapped.

What was claimed

NHS Test and Trace changed its packaging between December 2020 and February 2021 to mask the presence of ethylene oxide.

Our verdict

Although the packaging changed, this was done to clarify that only test swabs were sterilized with ethylene oxide. This is still clearly stated on the other packaging included with the tests.

What was claimed

Ethylene oxide is the main ingredient used in antifreeze.

Our verdict

This is not true. It is used as an intermediate agent to produce other chemicals.

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1 of 3 complaints

A video posted to Facebook suggests that ethylene oxide, a gas used to sterilize side-flow swabs, will react on contact with moisture and create deadly antifreeze and that ethylene oxide can immediately cause cancer . The video also claims that the packaging for the NHS side-flow tests has been deliberately changed to remove the reference to ethylene oxide.

As we have already written, ethylene oxide is a colorless gas that is used to sterilize medical equipment around the world and although overexposure can be dangerous, its use does not make medical products like dangerous lateral flow tests.

Although the packaging for lateral flow tests has changed, the test kits still clearly state that ethylene oxide is used to sterilize swabs.

Is Ethylene Oxide Safe?

Ethylene oxide has been used as a sterilizing agent for decades and is used to sterilize lateral flow tests. Sterilization of medical devices is very important to ensure that infections do not spread.

A minimal amount of ethylene oxide is used for the sterilization of lateral flow swabs, only 1 to 2 μg (millionths of a gram) per gram.

The Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which regulates medicines in the UK, previously told Full Fact that ethylene oxide is a highly controlled and safe sterilization method that is being evaluated throughout the sterilization process to ensure it meets safety standards.

The sterilization process involves exposing a material to ethylene oxide for a few seconds or minutes before the gas is removed, with no ethylene oxide remaining before the material is packaged.

The MHRA says: “In the very unlikely event that a swab contains a residual amount greater than the allowable limit, the risk to the user is still considered very low. “

Professor Andrea Sella, professor of inorganic chemistry at University College London, previously told us that “there is no conceivable harm that can arise from using an item sterilized in this way”.

Chronic exposure to ethylene oxide can be dangerous. Guidelines from Public Health England state that inhalation can cause “irritation of the eyes, nose and respiratory tract, causing coughing, burning” and, in severe cases, can also result in “coma, collapse cardiovascular disease and respiratory arrest ”.

According to the National Cancer Institute in the United States, lymphoma and leukemia are the most frequently reported cancers associated with occupational exposure to ethylene oxide. Stomach and breast cancers have also been reported.

In the UK, exposure limits are set by the Health and Safety Executive to protect workers who may interact with the chemical.

Why has the packaging changed?

The Department of Health and Welfare confirmed to Full Fact that although the “Sterile-EO” icon was initially on the outside of the kit box, it suggested that all of the test kit components (not just swabs) were sterilized with ethylene oxide, which was not.

For this reason, the icon was then removed from the outside of the box and kept only on the outer packaging of the swabs and among a glossary of symbols in the directions for use.

And is ethylene oxide the main ingredient in antifreeze?

Ethylene oxide as a gas is not used in antifreeze (a liquid that keeps water in an engine cooling system from freezing) but is used as an intermediate to create other chemicals present in antifreeze, as well as other consumer products such as polyester and coolant.

For example, ethylene glycol (one of the basic products used in antifreeze) is produced by a chemical reaction using ethylene oxide. Although there are a number of methods for the production of ethylene glycol, among the most common methods are the combination of ethylene oxide with water at very high temperatures and pressures or by combination with carbon dioxide.

In short, the ethylene oxide used to sterilize your swab will not hurt you. Ethylene oxide is unlikely to be left on your swab when you use it, and even if a very small amount was left, the moisture in your nose or throat would not combine with it. it to create antifreeze.

We have verified a number of other misleading claims regarding the use of ethylene oxide in lateral flow testing.

This article is part of our job checking for potentially fake Facebook images, videos, and stories. You can read more about it and find out how to report Facebook content here. For the purpose of this program, we have assessed this claim as partially false as 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. Although the packaging for the lateral flow tests has changed, this is because only the swabs in the packaging are sterilized in this way.


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