COVID-19 Watch FACT CHECK Health

VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Wearing a face mask DOES NOT cause cancer

A photo carrying an untrue claim that face masks cause cancer has been circulating on Facebook (FB) since late August, falsely citing the research of the late Nobel laureate and German physiologist Otto Heinrich Warburg.

“Wearing a face mask does not put you at a higher risk of cancer,” according to a Sept. 12 email interview of Vera Files Fact Check with health experts from the COVID-19 Expert Database of nonprofit organization Meedan.

The inaccurate post is premised on the claim that “the root cause of cancer is oxygen deficiency,” which it attributed to Warburg. This was then connected to an already-disproved conspiracy theory that wearing face masks—prescribed by several health authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19—causes hypoxia or a condition where the body’s cells do not get enough oxygen.

That mask-wearing causes hypoxia has already been debunked by the World Health Organization Philippines and fact checkers across five continents. (See: VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Prolonged mask use DOES NOT cause hypoxia)

More, the global team of public health researchers and scientists contributing to the COVID-19 Expert Database said: “Because of how tiny oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules are, face masks neither decrease the amount of oxygen that enters a mask nor increase the amount of carbon dioxide that stays in a mask.”

They added that face masks do not “alter one’s body in any way that would put someone at higher risk of cancer.”

Warburg’s research primarily suggests that normal cells turn into cancer cells “by switching from respiration to fermentation…which may happen when respiration is not possible due to a lack of oxygen, for instance.” The process has been termed the Warburg effect. Warburg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1931.

From Aug. 23 to Sept. 6, at least three Filipino netizens published the graphic carrying the false claims, which collectively got nearly 800 FB interactions. The graphic also featured a small text bearing the username @VicFreeman and site

The earliest—and a higher quality—copy of the image was published Aug. 14 on the FB profile of “Vic Freeman,” who regularly posts about anti-mask content and conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

This fake post first emerged in local FB posts around the same time Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque announced that the use of face masks and face shields will be required not just in public transport and in the workplace, but also in enclosed commercial establishments like malls.

The country has recorded 291,789 COVID-19 cases as of Sept. 22, according to the Department of Health’s COVID-19 Case Tracker. Over 56,000 of these are active infections.

(Editor’s Note: VERA Files has partnered with Facebook to fight the spread of disinformation. Find out more about this partnership and our methodology.)