In the internet age, any self-appointed “expert” can spread misinformation to millions of people around the world that undermines trust in science and costs people their lives. A video now circulating on social media falsely claims that nose swab tests cause cancer because they are sterilized with ethylene oxide.
The star of the video—a man with no scientific credentials—points to a Covid-19 home test kit from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) that states the swab was sterilized with ethylene oxide. “They are purposely killing us,” he says. “It is one of the worst, worst chemicals for causing cancer and people are sticking it up their kids’ noses.”
The video was swiftly and widely debunked. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Britain’s NHS issued statements affirming the safety of the tests and the strict standards for the use of ethylene oxide on medical devices. Fact-checkers at both the Associated Press and Reuters published articles concluding the video’s claims are false and confirming the safety of the medical devices.
But the damage was done. The video went viral and its audience developed an emotional attachment to the “alternative facts” it provided—which is a bond that no amount of credible scientific evidence can break.
In this case, reputable media outlets correctly made the effort to communicate the facts about ethylene oxide. But too often the media embraces uninformed internet gossip without question, allowing lies to spread with credibility. The fanfare surrounding the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list is a prime example of this negligence, as discussed in my latest commentary in Real Clear Science.
Skepticism is needed now more than ever. Like scientists, members of the press are ethically obligated to reject claims at face value and ask, “is this true?” and “according to who?” As the last line of defense against misinformation, we consumers of media should do the same.