CLAIM: Video shows swabs used for COVID-19 PCR testing contain hazardous radioactive and electromagnetically active residue.
AP ASSESSMENT: False. Swabs used in PCR tests are not radioactive and do not emit harmful radiation, experts say. The machine in the video does not measure radioactivity; it measures electromagnetic fields, which could have been caused by static electricity on the swab or radiation from a nearby cell phone. These fields are present everywhere in our daily lives, in household items such as microwaves, hair dryers and laptop computers.
THE FACTS: A video viewed thousands of times on Instagram this week pushes a false narrative that COVID-19 PCR tests are radioactive, covered in hazardous residue and harmful to humans.
The clip shows a person taking a test swab out of a tube and putting it back in place. Nearby in the frame, an EMF meter, or device used to detect electromagnetic energy fields, lights up with numbers. Then the person holds the swab next to the meter by itself, and the meter continues to turn on.
In the background, a voice in German and a second voice in English claim that the tests are harmful to humans.
“There are radioactive, electromagnetically active residues out there,” the voice said in English. “And they want to put it in your nose, in your sinuses. Very dangerous.”
However, these claims are false, according to the experts, who explained that the PCR test swabs do not contain radioactive residues nor do they emit any radiation that can harm humans.
“Sample collection devices like this are not radioactive,” said Dr. Daniel Rhoads, a microbiologist and pathologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “These cannot emit high-energy ionizing radiation.”
The claim that the swab is radioactive is not supported in the video, as the EMF meter in the clip does not measure radioactivity. Tools called Geiger counters are used to measure radioactivity, while EMF counters measure the energy fields emitted by electrically charged objects such as cell phones or computers.
Theoretically, all objects that are not at absolute zero, or the lowest possible temperature, emit small amounts of radiation, said Kenneth Foster, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. However, a test swab does not emit any amount of radiation that would be harmful to health, he said.
“I can’t imagine anything in the probe that emits electromagnetic fields, but it would be easy to simulate the demonstration using an actual source of fields such as a cellphone held out of view of the camera,” said Foster. “I conclude that all of this is a fake.”
John Dawson, a professor specializing in electromagnetism at the University of York in England, agreed that the video was likely a scam. He said it’s possible that the static electricity generated by moving the swab in and out of the tube caused the meter to light up.
“The meter’s specification suggests that it is susceptible to reacting to electrostatic fields,” Dawson said. Similar to rubbing a balloon on a wool sweater, he said, wiggling the cotton swab in and out of the tube would generate a field that some EMF meters would pick up.
After removing the swab from the tube, it it makes sense for the swab to turn on the meter by itself, he said, because the electrostatic charge would have been transferred to the swab.
Dawson said fields like this are not harmful to humans and we are exposed to them every day with activities like taking off a synthetic sweatshirt or getting out of a car.
This is part of AP’s efforts to combat widely shared misinformation, including working with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.