This video by Registered Nurse Cassandra Dunn on the carcinogenic ethylene oxide used to sterilize the COVID swabs has been doing its rounds on the social networks for quite some time now.
The long-term effects, if any, of these swabs is not currently known, but millions of people have been tested, some workers are testing regularly, and these COVID swab tests are now being used on children.
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. 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 sterilization 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 is supposed to 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, says an environmental health sciences professor at the University of Michigan.
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, 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.
Despite the aeration of swabs to dissipate Ethylene Oxide after sterilization, trace amounts may remain. Repeated, regular exposure to trace amounts of a carcinogen may result in cumulative effects over time, and no long-term studies currently focus on these effects on large portions of the world’s population.
Given that the exposure to Ethylene Oxide during COVID nasal swab testing is not via the skin on extremities, but in the nasal cavity, caution and risk mitigation is strongly advised.