Panic over rumours of disease-ridden thermoses in Africa

Screengrabs of photos and videos showing people breaking their thermoses and finding little white pellets. Translation of a message accompanying one of these videos: “Pills containing AIDS and diabetes in thermoses sold in Africa, by China and Europe”.
Screengrabs of photos and videos showing people breaking their thermoses and finding little white pellets. Translation of a message accompanying one of these videos: “Pills containing AIDS and diabetes in thermoses sold in Africa, by China and Europe”.

Social media across the African continent is alight with rumours about infected thermos bottles. Some say that thermoses are being laced with pills that carry diseases. Others say the thermoses themselves contain asbestos, putting consumers at risk. These rumours have led dozens of people to post videos to social media showing themselves breaking their thermoses. Our team decided to investigate.

Several people from the Ivory Coast contacted our team on WhatsApp last week to let us know about this topic of frenzied discussion online. They showed us photos and videos showing broken thermoses next to small round objects which looked like pellets or pills.

“We discovered pills within several thermoses in Odienné, Ivory Coast,” one of them told our team. “Rumour has it that these pills have caused people to fall ill with mysterious illnesses.”

Screengrabs of some of the WhatsApp messages that we received this past week. Translation: “Here are the images. This created panic in Korhogo, Ivory Coast.”


Ivory Coast, Mali, Kenya… a wave of panic hits multiple countries

If you search on Facebook or YouTube, you’ll come across dozens of similar videos and photos. They’ve been circulated widely on social media in Ivory Coast, Kenya and Cameroon.


This video is circulating on social media in Kenya.


Some posts in French claim that these allegedly toxic substances can infect people with AIDs or cause cancers or heart attacks, and that they were planted by “Westerners” or “China” as a means to “finish off Africa”.

“Pills causing AIDs and diabetes in thermoses sold in sub-Saharan Africa by China, Europe. China is the Trojan Horse of genocidal Whites,” reads the caption on one of the videos published on Facebook.

"A rumour that I witnessed and verified myself: inside my thermos, three pills. Tell us, what are these pills used for? Protecting or killing?” wrote another social media user, alongside photos of a broken thermos.


Some videos circulated widely, like this one, which was viewed more than 74,000 times:

Other posts, many in English, claim that these thermoses could cause cancer (check out the caption of this video on YouTube).

Could thermoses really contain asbestos? It’s possible

On September 19, a Kenyan journalist posted on Facebook that the little pellets were pieces of asbestos used to insulate the thermos.


Another video our team was sent via WhatsApp gives the same explanation. It was an excerpt from a German documentary dubbed in Arabic (the first version of this documentary posted online was uploaded to YouTube in September 2011.)

It turns out that this documentary is at the origin of much of the recent panic. But it isn’t clear why this old footage resurfaced.

The segment of the documentary that has been circulating widely shows a lab in Germany. The narrator explains that German scientists found asbestos -- a product that has been banned in Europe since 2005 -- in thermoses imported from China. They alerted European authorities about this product (using the Europe-wide RAPEX system, which is used to sound the alarm about dangerous products).

A RAPEX document published on the European Commission website says that 18 brands of thermoses containing asbestos were reported in 2012 in Italy, Germany and Spain. Most of them were made in China.

Another document, this one published by the Italian ministry of health in March 2018, also reports a Chinese-made thermos that was found to contain asbestos.

In November 2017, a consumer protection agency in Oman also announced the recall of several thermoses that contained traces of asbestos.

In Kenya, where the rumour of pills hidden in thermoses was also circulated wildly, a government agency examined thermoses in late October. The daily newspaper The Star interviewed several specialists, who said that these thermoses contained tremolite, a kind of asbestos, in small pellets. One of the scientists told the newspaper that this substance could be carcinogenic if inhaled, handled or if it touched contaminated food.

How breaking open your thermos could be more dangerous

Are all of the “pills” or “pellets” shown in videos and photos posted online really asbestos? No, they aren’t – and you should not break a thermos to check.

We sent several of these videos to Dr. Gunnar Ries, a mineralogist who works in CRB, a German test laboratory. He says that breaking your thermos is both dangerous and useless.


It’s hard to say if these pellets are asbestos or not without running lab tests. However, it’s dangerous to break a thermos without proper protection. When asbestos is contained within the lining of the thermos, it isn’t dangerous. But if you break open an object that contains asbestos, there are risks.

"You can’t tell if a substance is asbestos or not with the naked eye," said Michel Parigot, the president of the French association Andeva (The National Association for the Defence of Asbestos Victims) in an interview with our team. Parigot says that the only way for a consumer to know if a product contains asbestos is if there is strict legislation in place monitoring imports and requiring any products to be properly labelled if they contain asbestos.

A 2016 article published on the website Asbestos Global lists several thermoses that were flagged as dangerous in Europe because they contain asbestos. In most cases, however, it is also noted that the asbestos only poses a risk if the thermos breaks.

In conclusion, it is true that there are risks of exposure if you break a thermos that contains pellets of asbestos, which are used as insulation. But there is no known risk if the thermos doesn’t break.


Do some thermoses contain pills causing diabetes or AIDS? Absolutely not

Our research found that there was no evidence to support rumours circulating online claiming that there were thermoses on the market that could transmit AIDs or cause diabetes or hypertension.

People can only be infected with HIV (the virus responsible for AIDS) in very specific circumstances. Most often, it is transmitted during sexual intercourse. Meanwhile, diabetes, like heart disease, cancer and chronic respiratory illnesses, is not transmissible.

Social media is full of rumours accusing China or the West of poisoning Africans with dangerous products, especially food items. We have investigated several of these other rumours in the past.

READ MORE ON THE OBSERVERS: “Plastic rice”: the videos tricking African social media