Faking Lateral Flow Tests: the problem with pH

Fruit juices can be used to generate a fake positive on COVID-19 LFTs

On Thursday last week, I got a message from Prof Mark Lorch — my sometime collaborator on supercharacter-based ramblings.

“Have you seen the reports of kids fooling the Covid lateral flow tests and getting false +ve results by adding orange juice to the devices?” he wondered.

At this point, I had not – but I quickly got up to speed. Mark had previously made an excellent video explaining how lateral flow test (LFT) devices work, so it was just a case of working out, firstly, whether the false positives were reproducible, and secondly, speculating what, exactly, was causing them.

Thus ensued some interesting discussion which ultimately led to a couple of articles from Mark. One at The Conversation and another, slightly more recently, at BBC Future.

I won’t delve into LFT-related science, because Mark has covered it (really, check the video and those articles), but I am going to talk a little bit about pH – the scale chemists use to measure how acidic or alkaline solutions are – because as soon as news of this started to gain traction people, predictably, started trying it out themselves. And that was when things got really interesting.

Image

The buffer included with LFTs is effective at neutralising the pH of solutions, for example, cola

Now, firstly, and importantly: the test kits come with a small vial of buffer solution. Buffers are substances which resist pH changes. As I’ve written before, our bodies naturally contain buffer systems, because keeping the pH of our blood and other body fluids constant is important. In fact, if blood pH varies even a little, you’re in all sorts of serious trouble (which is how we can be certain that so-called “alkaline” diets are a load of hooey). Anyway, the important message is: don’t mix any liquid you’re testing with the contents of that phial, because that will neutralise it.

If you want to try this for yourself, just drop the liquid you want to test directly into the window marked S on the test.

That out of the way, let’s get back to pH. It’s a scale, usually presented as going from 0–14, often associated with particular colours. The 0 end is usually red, the 7 in the middle is usually green, while the 14 end is usually dark blue.

These colours are so pervasive, in fact, that I’ve met more than one person with the idea that acids are red, and alkalis are blue. This isn’t the case, of course. The red/green/blue idea largely comes from universal indicator (UI), which is a mixture of dyes that change colour at different pH values. There’s also a common indicator called litmus (people sometimes mix up UI and litmus, but they’re not the same) which is also red in acid and blue in alkali.

Some species of hydrangea produce pink flowers in alkaline soil, blue in acid soil.

There are actually lots of pH indicators, with a wide variety of colour changes. Phenolphthalein, for example, is bright pink in alkali, and colourless in acids. Bromocresol purple (they have such easy-to-spell names) is yellow in acids, and violet-purple in alkalis.

Many plants contain natural indicators. Just to really mix things up, some species of hydrangea produce flowers that are blue-purple when they’re grown in acidic soil, and pink-red in alkaline conditions.

Bottom line? Despite the ubiquitous diagrams, pH has nothing to do with colour. What it is to do with is concentration. Specifically, the concentration of hydrogen ions (H+) in the solution. The more H+ ions there are, the more acidic the solution is, and the lower the pH. The fewer there are, the less acidic (and the more alkaline, and higher pH) it is.

In fact, pH is a log scale. When the concentration changes by a factor of 10, the pH changes by one point on the scale.

This means that if you take an acid with pH of 2, and you dilute it 1 part to 10, its pH changes to 3 (i.e. gets one point more alkaline, closer to neutral). Likewise, if you dilute an alkali with a pH of 10 by 1:10, its pH will shift to 9 (again, closer to neutral).

And what this means is that the pH of substances is not a fixed property.

Louder for anyone not paying attention at the back: the pH of substances is not a fixed property!

Yes, we’ve all seen diagrams that show, for example, the pH of lemon juice as 2. This is broadly true for most lemons, give or take, but if you dilute the lemon juice, the pH rises.

Apple juice dropped directly into the test window gives an immediate “positive” result.

I am by no means an expert in commercial, bottled lemon juice, but I reckon a lot of them have water added – which may well explain why @chrismiller_uk was able to get a positive result, while @BrexitClock, using a French bottle of lemon juice, couldn’t.

Mark and I concluded that the pH you need to aim for is probably around 3–4. Go too low, and you don’t get a positive (and you might wipe out the control line, too). Likewise, too high also won’t work.

Myself, I tried apple juice. I couldn’t find the indicator colour key for my indicator paper (I really must clear out the drawers one of these days) but it’s broadly the same as Mark’s cola photo, up above. In other words, the apple juice is about pH 3. And it gives a beautiful positive result, immediately.

One more interesting observation: Mark recorded some time-lapse video comparing orange juice to (sugar-free) cola. It shows the cola test line developing a lot more slowly. We’re not entirely sure why, but it may be pH again: orange juice almost certainly has a lower pH than cola.

For any parents reading this thinking we’re being terribly irresponsible, fear not: as Prof Lorch has made clear in his articles, you can identify a fake by waiting a few minutes and then dropping some of the buffer solution provided in the test window. As I said above, this will neutralise the pH, and the positive test line will disappear. Extra buffer won’t change a genuinely-positive test, because the antibodies bind very tightly (more technical info here). To quote Mark: “you’d need a swimming pool’s worth of buffer to have any chance of washing [the antibodies] off.”

Alternatively, you can just watch your teenager as they do their tests, and make sure they’re not getting up to anything nefarious…

Have you tried to trick an LFT? If you have, share your results! Look us up on Twitter: @chronicleflask and @Mark_Lorch or add a comment below. We’d love to see your photos!


Do you want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not take a look at my fiction blog: the fiction phial? You can also find me doing various flavours of editor-type-stuff at the horror podcast, PseudoPod.org – so head over there, too!

Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2021. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. You can support my writing my buying a super-handy Pocket Chemist from Genius Lab Gear using the code FLASK15 at checkout (you’ll get a discount, too!) or by buying me a coffee – the button is right here…
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1 thought on “Faking Lateral Flow Tests: the problem with pH

  1. Pingback: Monthly Links | Zen Mischief

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