In 11 countries — Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Spain, Brazil and France — people are reading on social media that masks can cause hypoxia — a dangerous decrease in the oxygen level available to the body’s cells. This is a lie. A big one.
In the CoronaVirusFacts database, users will find that, between April 30 and May 13, at least five fact-checked articles have been published explaining that this risk does not exist, and that it is extremely important that people wear face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first fact-checking team to draw attention to this absurdity was Animal Político from Mexico. On April 30, the team used capital letters on its website to emphasize the fact-check: “NO KIND OF FACE MASK WILL CAUSE HYPOXIA.” And added: “Although it is true that face masks can generate unpleasant sensations, don’t worry, it is normal. Using face masks will not cause any kind of oxygen deficiency. In reality, hypoxia can only be caused by smoking, inhaling gases, or exposing yourself to high elevations — not by using mouthguards, masks, or filters.”
This hoax, however, spread throughout Latin America and reached Europe in fewer than two weeks. On April 4, AFP found the same falsehood circulating in Chile, Brazil and France, and its fact-checking team published an article listing two websites and six Facebook pages that had shared the misinformation in three different languages: English (1,2), Spanish (1, 2, 3, 4) and Portuguese (1, 2). Together, just the four posts in Spanish were shared 24,800 times on Facebook before AFP assessed them.
It is possible that the hoaxes detected by ColombiaCheck and Agência Lupa on April 7 have some connection to all previous content. However, the fact-checks published in Colombia and Brazil were based on WhatsApp and Twitter posts — which proves that this hoax deserves maximum attention. It has jumped among countries, languages and platforms.
In Colombia, the falsehoods suggested that breathing repeatedly inside a mask “intoxicates the user,” causes “discomfort, loss of reflexes and conscious thought.” Therefore, only wear the mask “if you have someone in front of you” and “lift the mask every 10 minutes.” All false, according to medical sources.
In Brazil, it said that “expired air is transformed into carbon dioxide” and that breathing it would cause dizziness. Not true.
So, before this hoax contributes to more infections or more deaths, share this alert with your network.
The World Health Organization recommends you use masks to protect yourself and others in the midst of the pandemic. It does not pose any risk to you. Disinformation and lies, on the other hand, can be very, very harmful.
Read this article in Spanish at Univision.
*Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.