PCR swabs don’t emit harmful radiation
CLAIM: A video shows that swabs used for COVID-19 PCR testing contain dangerous radioactive and electromagnetically active residue.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Swabs used in PCR testing are not radioactive and do not emit harmful radiation, according to experts. The machine in the video does not measure radioactivity; it measures electromagnetic fields, which could have been caused by static on the swab or radiation from a nearby cellphone. 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 dangerous residue and harmful to humans.
The clip shows a person pulling a testing swab out of a tube and putting it back in again. Nearby in the frame, an electromagnetic field meter, or a device used to detect fields of electromagnetic energy, lights up with numbers. Afterward, the person holds the swab next to the meter by itself, and the meter continues to light up.
In the background, a voice in German and a second voice in English claim that the tests are harmful to humans.
“There’s radioactive, electromagnetically active, basically, residue there,” the voice in English says. “And they want to put it into your nose, into your sinuses. Very dangerous.”
However, these claims are false, according to experts, who explained that PCR test swabs do not contain radioactive residue, nor do they emit radiation that can harm humans.
“Sample collection devices like that are not radioactive,” said Dr. Daniel Rhoads, a microbiologist and pathologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “These cannot emit high-energy, ionizing radiation.”
The claim that the swab is radioactive is unsupported in the video, because the EMF meter in the clip does not measure radioactivity. Tools called Geiger counters are used to measure radioactivity, while EMF meters measure fields of energy emitted by electrically charged objects such as cellphones or computers.
Theoretically, all objects that are not at absolute zero, or the lowest possible temperature, emit small amounts of radiation, said Kenneth Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. However, a testing 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 would emit any sort of electromagnetic fields, but it would be easy to fake the demo using a real source of fields such as a cellphone held out of sight of the camera,” Foster said. “I conclude that this is all a fake.”
John Dawson, a professor who specializes in electromagnetics at England’s University of York, agreed that the video was likely a scam. He said it’s possible that the static electricity generated by bringing the swab in and out of the tube caused the meter to light up.
“The meter spec suggests it is likely to be responsive to electrostatic fields,” Dawson said. Similar to rubbing a balloon on a woolen sweater, he said, bringing the 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 would make sense for the swab to light up 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 effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.