Fact check: Is the coronavirus being spread 'quickly' via gas pumps?
It's vital to clean surfaces you touch every day amid the coronavirus outbreak. Here are mistakes to avoid. USA TODAY
The claim: Coronavirus is spreading quickly from gas pumps
A March 17 Facebook post warned users to be careful when going to the gas station. The post, by user Brent McDonald, claimed gas pump handles are helping to spread coronavirus.
"I just spoke with a friend who got called into an emergency meeting at his hospital," McDonald wrote. "He said the virus is spreading quickly from gas pumps."
The Facebook post has roughly 310,000 shares along with nearly 4,000 comments and 4,000 likes.
“I am a paramedic and understand how easily these viruses can spread through [everyday] objects,” McDonald told USA TODAY. “This was just a couple things they mentioned the virus can spread through and people [are] not realizing it. As a medical professional it’s my obligation to inform [the] public on things like this.”
Other versions of the claim have appeared on social media and messaging apps. Some versions of the post named local hospitals where the “emergency meeting” took place. One such message on WhatsApp attributed the claim to "Galway Hospital" in Ireland. "We’ve not issued any such advice," a spokesperson for Galway University Hospital told the Journal.ie on March 20.
Snopes and Health Feedback have both investigated the claim and found it to be partly false. Snopes explained, “gas pumps are just one of many objects that multiple people commonly handle in similar fashion during the course of a day, including ATMs, payment processing systems, shopping cart handles, and currency, all of which pose varying degrees of risk.”
How the coronavirus spreads
The Centers for Disease Control maintains that person-to-person contact is still the main method of transmission. The agency adds: “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
Although transmission through contaminated surfaces is possible, researchers can’t yet measure how many cases are contracted this way.
Health Feedback explained, “SARS-CoV-2 can survive for multiple days on solid surfaces like plastic or stainless steel. However, no scientific studies have investigated how many people contract the virus through contaminated surfaces compared to direct contact with droplets spread by coughing and sneezing.”
The coronavirus's lifespan on surfaces
A March 17 New England Journal of Medicine study explores the virus’s lifespan on different surfaces. The study found that the virus is detectable on plastic – the material most gas pump handles are made of – for up to 72 hours. USA TODAY explained the rest of the NEJM's findings.
Thursday, the CDC released research conducted on the Diamond Princess Cruise ship, where there was a major COVID-19 outbreak in early February. The research revealed the virus was still detectable on surfaces after 17 days without disinfection. “SARS-CoV-2 RNA was identified on a variety of surfaces in cabins of both symptomatic and asymptomatic infected passengers up to 17 days after cabins were vacated on the Diamond Princess but before disinfection procedures had been conducted.”
The researchers could not determine if the contaminated surfaces led to transmissions of COVID-19 on the ship but are advocating for further exploration.
Disinfecting your surfaces
In his post, McDonald suggested people use gloves or a paper towel to handle gas pumps. “Wear gloves or have a paper towel touch the pump and throw the napkin or gloves out before you get back in the car,” he wrote.
The executive director of nonprofit Fuels Institute, John Eichberger, recently recommended to Consumer Reports that customers take action to ease their concerns. “If consumers are really worried about touching a gas pump handle, they can do what they do when they go to a grocery store and wipe down surfaces with disinfectant wipes when they need to touch something,” he said.
Since person-to-person contact is the main method of transmission, continuing to engage in social distancing and compliance with stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders from various authorities continue to be among the best ways to avoid exposure. The CDC and World Health Organization suggest people avoid touching their faces and wash their hands often and thoroughly to lessen the chances of exposure to the coronavirus.
The WHO describes how contact with contaminated surfaces can lead to transmission: “Hands touch many surfaces and can pick up viruses. Once contaminated, hands can transfer the virus to your eyes, nose or mouth. From there, the virus can enter your body and can make you sick.”
The CDC stresses the importance of proper handwashing to prevent transferring the virus from a public surface – like a gas pump – to your body, “Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place.”
On top of practicing social distancing and proper hygiene, people can disinfect their frequently used surfaces. The CDC’s disinfection guide explains detailed cleaning procedures for a variety of surfaces. Individuals should use EPA-approved cleaning products when disinfecting for the coronavirus.
Our ruling: Partly false
We conclude the claim that the coronavirus is "spreading quickly from gas pumps" is PARTLY FALSE because some of the claim was not supported by our research. Although the virus can spread from contact with droplets on surfaces, there is no evidence to suggest it is spreading quickly via gas pumps or hard surfaces, in general.
According to the CDC, person-to-person contact is the main method of transmission. And both the CDC and WHO offer guidance on proper hygiene and disinfection methods to minimize chances of exposure to the coronavirus.
Our fact-check sources:
- The Journal.ie, Debunked: No, 'Galway Hospital' hasn't circulated a message telling people to wear gloves at petrol pumps
- Snopes, Is COVID-19 Being Spread Through Gas Pumps?
- Health Feedback, The virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on solid surfaces for days, but infection risk from contaminated objects is unknown
- New England Journal of Medicine, Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1
- USA TODAY, How long does the coronavirus live on surfaces?
- CDC, Public Health Responses to COVID-19 Outbreaks on Cruise Ships — Worldwide, February–March 2020
- Consumer Reports, How to Protect Yourself Against Coronavirus When Pumping Gas
- USA TODAY, First defense against coronavirus: 20 seconds of proper hand-washing
- WHO, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public
- CDC on Hand Washing
- CDC Disinfection Guide
- EPA-Approved Disinfection Products
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