Misinformation circulates in Myanmar that dried butterfly pea flowers cause liver cancer

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Multiple Facebook posts shared thousands of times in Myanmar claim that consuming dried butterfly pea flowers causes liver cancer. The claim is misleading; health experts and government regulators in Myanmar say butterfly pea flowers are not carcinogenic; the doctor cited in the posts denied issuing such statements.

The post was published here on Facebook on July 3, 2020. It has been shared more than 1,600 times.

A screenshot taken on July 13, 2020, of the misleading Facebook post by U Phyoe Minn Paing

The Burmese-language post’s caption translates to English as: "The dried butterfly pea flower [Aung Mae Nyo in Burmese] is spreading liver cancer throughout Myanmar."

The post goes on to claim: "If you put the butterfly pea flower under the sun and use it, it is like you are digging your own grave. By putting it in the sun, it is like the flowers are dehydrated and the Benzene compound left. Benzene causes cancer.”

The post references and includes a photo of Professor Khin Maung Win, a well-known physician and hepatologist in Myanmar.

A similar claim was also published on Facebook here and here, and on other websites here and here.

The claim, however, is misleading, according to experts.

“We have seen no evidence to support the claim that benzene is found in the Butterfly Pea nor of any cancer risk to humans from the plant,” Dr. William G Cance, the chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, told AFP in an email on July 14.

Dr. Ruth Lunn, the director of the US National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) Office of the Report on Carcinogens, also stated that while benzene -- a naturally occurring chemical compound -- does cause leukemia, it has not been linked to liver cancer.

“The NTP has not studied butterfly pea, and therefore have not, and cannot, classify it as a carcinogen. Regarding the alleged breakdown product if put in the sun, benzene hasn’t been linked to liver cancer,” Lunn told AFP in an email on July 16.

Professor Khin Maung Win, the doctor referenced in the misleading posts, also denied making statements on the purported health effects of butterfly pea flowers. 

“That is completely false news. I don't know whether they wanted to attack me, or they wanted to attack the ‘butterfly pea’ producers,” he told AFP in an interview on July 13. “I didn’t make any comments about this ‘butterfly pea’ in the media. I haven't said a single word about it.”