This article is part of IranWire's ongoing coverage of Covid-19 disinformation in different countries, in partnership with Health Studio.
By Florencia Montaruli for Health Studio
In August 2020, the Bolivian Parliament approved the use of a chemical compound called chlorine dioxide as a treatment for Covid-19 — in spite of the fact that it does not cure or prevent the disease and is dangerous to health.
Bolivia’s president put this law into effect four months later, enabling the “elaboration, commercialisation, supply, and consensual use” of the chemical “to prevent [Covid-19] and treat the population.”
This is in spite of the fact Bolivia’s Ministry of Health advises against its use.
Why is the Bolivian parliament promoting the use of chlorine dioxide?
Senator Milton Barón, a member of the leading Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party, is a prominent defender of the use of chlorine dioxide.
He has described the new law as a matter of liberty, telling the Bolivian press in August that “each citizen should be able to choose whether they want to use [the chemical] or not”.
He also argued the government needed to regulate the manufacture and distribution of the chemical compound to help prevent its sale on the black market.
But many members of the public will likely have taken the new law as an endorsement of the use of chlorine dioxide for Covid-19.
What is chlorine dioxide and why is it so dangerous?
Chlorine dioxide is a derivative of sodium chlorite, which is used to bleach paper and textiles due to its low cost. But it can be very harmful to humans. When ingested, it can cause diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach pain, eye irritation and even kidney failure.
Its defenders call it a “miracle cure” for a plethora of diseases including cancer and AIDS, often using distorted data as evidence to fit their false claims. But experts say there isn’t a single disease for which chlorine dioxide is useful.
In reality, chlorine dioxide can kill healthy human cells. Research has shown, for example, that the chemical destroys the cells that carry oxygen to the blood. This can cause low blood pressure and respiratory distress, which may lead to death.
People promoting the chemical claim it is safe by pointing to its use as a sanitiser and to make water drinkable. But this is misleading because it is only used in very low concentrations to destroy viruses and bacteria in water. In fact, chlorine dioxide-treated water is only considered safe for human consumption at a concentration of 0.8mg per litre of water or lower.
Since last year, groups spreading disinformation about the pandemic have promoted chlorine dioxide as a way to prevent and treat Covid-19. But health bodies including the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) say no clinical trials or other reliable studies have found any evidence to suggest the chemical is effective against the disease.
The dangerous chemical killed at least two people in neighbouring Argentina last year. The family of one of the victims — a five-year-old boy — said they had given him chlorine dioxide believing it would prevent Covid-19. In Bolivia, several people were hospitalised with severe symptoms last summer after drinking the substance.
Where did this false belief about chlorine dioxide come from?
Chlorine dioxide’s false reputation as a “miracle” remedy can be traced back to a 2006 book called The Miracle Mineral Solution of the 21st Century. This book was self-published by an American named Jim Humble who has built a career on falsehoods. For example, the former Scientologist claimed he had been sent from the Andromeda galaxy to save humanity with his “miracle solution.”
He went on to found a group called the “Genesis II Health and Healing Church,” which charges membership fees of $35 per month. Last year, this so-called “church” was ordered to stop selling chlorine dioxide as a cure for Covid-19 by the US Food and Drug Administration.
In addition to promoting chlorine dioxide, Humble is also a member of the anti-vaccine movement which baselessly claims inoculations can cause health problems like autism. Many such claims stem from a widely-discredited study published in medical journal The Lancet in 1998. The research paper was eventually retracted after it was revealed to contain numerous inaccuracies, and its lead author — British doctor Andrew Wakefield — was struck off the country’s medical register.
People all over the world have denounced Humble after experiencing serious side effects from drinking chlorine dioxide. In 2016, ABC published the story of a healthy woman who died after taking the substance just once in the mistaken belief it would protect against malaria.
But Humble and his “church” are not the only people promoting this lie. Andreas Kalcker, who claims to be a researcher, was arrested in Spain for selling a chlorine dioxide solution as a medicine that can prevent or even cure Covid-19. A group of conspiracy theorists known as “Médicos por la Verdad” have spread this disinformation about the substance throughout Spain and Latin America.
Humble and Kalcker reportedly claim to have cured serious illnesses with chlorine dioxide, without providing any verifiable evidence. Such claims take advantage of the despair that can be experienced by people who have severe illnesses, or seriously unwell relatives.
This same despair leaves many Bolivian people vulnerable to the claims of the sellers of this false and expensive miracle cure. A small bottle of chlorine dioxide can sell for $30 in Bolivia; a country whose annual gross domestic product is less than $9,000 per person.
In a country where even some churches distribute chlorine dioxide, it’s possible that Parliament approving the chemical would inspire confidence in the government. The effects of Bolivia’s Covid-19 crisis have been exacerbated by an ongoing economic crisis and a presidential impeachment.
The country has had almost 250,000 coronavirus cases and 11,666 deaths; concerning numbers that have overwhelmed its health system. Many people infected with the disease have died in their homes or on the streets, waiting for a hospital bed.
Such desperate situations lead many citizens towards alternative solutions, leaving them vulnerable to those promoting disinformation. The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, by Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, states that vulnerability, fear of the unknown, and the helplessness of not having an explanation for something, provide fertile ground in which disinformation can take root.
At the time of writing, there is no scientific evidence to show that chlorine dioxide has reduced the burden of Covid-19 in Bolivia. What is known, however, is that it is dangerous — even deadly — and provides no benefit against the disease.