Rising Reports of Poisoning From Cleaning Products

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The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of daily life. Businesses have shut their doors and the unemployment rate has jumped higher than it was during the Great Depression. Grocery store shelves reflect weaknesses in the food supply chain that have forced dairy farmers to dump milk while grocers limit sales.

In a public attempt to gain more information, Facebook, Google, Twitter and 57 other companies are monitoring your communication using artificial intelligence. The pandemic has also changed the way people are cleaning their homes.

Spike in Poisonings From Cleaning Chemicals

If you’ve found your favorite cleaning solutions are running low at the grocery, you aren’t the only one. Americans have been zealously disinfecting surfaces in their home since the World Health Organization Director-General declared a pandemic March 11, 2020.1 The announcement sparked the massive buying of everything from bread and toilet paper to several types of cleaning supplies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention2 recently released a report on the number of calls received at poison control centers across the U.S., showing record numbers for problems after exposure to cleaning solutions. The CDC compared the numbers and types of calls in the first three months of 2020 to the same period in 2018 and 2019 across 55 centers.

The data are uploaded to the National Poison Data System (NPDA) in real time as calls are received 24 hours a day. In the first three months of 2020 the centers received 45,550 calls related to either cleaning solutions or disinfectants.

The data showed that across all types of problems related to cleaning solutions, calls about bleach increased the most, while non-alcohol disinfectants and hand sanitizers increased the most among disinfectants. These numbers reflected an overall increase of 20.4% from 2019 and 16.4% from 2018. The CDC reported:3

“Although NPDS data do not provide information showing a definite link between exposures and COVID-19 cleaning efforts, there appears to be a clear temporal association with increased use of these products.”

While these numbers represented the total over the first quarter of 2020, the researchers noted the reports rose sharply in March, corresponding to when WHO declared the pandemic. The researchers published two case studies to highlight the dangers of chemical exposures.

In one case, a woman said she heard on the news it was important to clean recently purchased groceries before eating. “She filled a sink with a mixture of 10% bleach solution, vinegar, and hot water, and soaked her produce.” The gas triggered difficulty breathing which required care at the emergency department, where she received oxygen and was put on a bronchodilator before being discharged.

The CDC acknowledges the data “likely underestimate the total incidence and severity of poisonings, because they are limited to persons calling poison centers for assistance.” Dr. Joshua King is the medical director at the Maryland Poison Center4 where they estimate a 50% rise in calls related to hand sanitizer in the months since the pandemic began.

Disinfectants Are Designed for Use Outside the Body

Speaking with a reporter at Slate, King recommended that people use soap and water if they run out of their household cleaners. The Food and Drug Administration reassured consumers there is currently no evidence of contracting the virus from food packaging.5

This is supported by a German infectious disease specialist, Dr. Hendrik Streeck, who, in his initial research, found no live viruses in a home with sick people. He checked surfaces, doorknobs and even pet fur.6 He’s planning an innovative follow-up study to survey people living in Heinsburg, Germany, the worst-hit area in the country. He and his team hope to figure out how the infection is spread.

In his daily briefing April 23, 2020, President Trump questioned the different ways the SARS-CoV-2 virus could be killed in the human body. He first suggested using light that could penetrate the body after learning the virus doesn’t live as long in warm and humid conditions. He went on to suggest:7

“I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? As you see, it gets in the lungs, it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.”

His suggestion was quickly challenged by medical experts and chemical manufacturers from the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Surgeon General and Maryland’s Emergency Management Agency.8 Dr. Vin Gupta, global health policy expert, told NBC News:9

“This notion of injecting or ingesting any type of cleansing product into the body is irresponsible and it’s dangerous. It’s a common method that people utilize when they want to kill themselves.”

Although the President never mentioned Lysol, the manufacturers of Lysol also rapidly issued a warning statement, telling consumers that any internal use of their product is dangerous:10

“… we must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route). As with all products, our disinfectant and hygiene products should only be used as intended and in line with usage guidelines. Please read the label and safety information.”

Clean Up Your Cleaning Solutions

Emergency medicine physician Dr. Robert Glatter from Lenox Hill Hospital spoke with Newsmax. His comments were published in an article just one day before the President’s remarks. He stressed the necessity for caution while using toxic chemicals, saying:11

“While cleaning your home and your hands is important in reducing your risk for COVID-19, it’s also important that you take the proper precautions to reduce a toxic exposure, which can lead to an ER visit.”

With an increased use of cleaning supplies across the nation, it may be time to revisit research from the University of Bergen in Norway, where scientists demonstrated that people who used cleaning products just once a week for 20 years experienced lung damage that was equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day for 10 to 20 years.12

Their data set was the result of analyzing 6,235 men and women whose average age was 34 when they enrolled in the study. They were followed for 20 years. They found that women who worked as cleaners experienced accelerated lung damage, and speculated this was the result of irritation to the mucus membranes in the airways.13

Common household products and cleaning solutions contribute to indoor air pollution. Short-term exposure increases your risk of exacerbating asthma symptoms; chronic exposure is also associated with lung damage, cancer and damage to reproductive health.14

Don’t Mix These Cleaning Products

SARS-CoV-2 is encased in a lipid envelope, which means it’s a single strand of RNA wrapped in a bubble of fatty molecules.15 This makes it, and others like it, highly susceptible to soaps and disinfectants. This is good, since soap, water and elbow grease are all you’ll need to clean your household surfaces.

If you’d like to use more, it’s important not to mix over-the-counter cleaning products. They often have more than one ingredient and are designed to be used alone. If you mix chemicals, the reactions can produce dangerous and sometimes fatal fumes.

For example, the woman in the CDC case study who I mentioned earlier, who mixed vinegar, bleach and hot water to soak her produce, inhaled chlorine gas, which was the product of this combination. Chlorine gas was once used during World War I as a chemical weapon.16 When bleach is mixed with another acid chemical, such as vinegar, toilet bowl cleaner or oven cleaner, chlorine gas is released.17

Combining bleach and ammonia is another common mistake that releases chloramine gas.18 A dangerous side effect of the gas is pneumonia and lung damage. Other symptoms include nausea, chest pain and nose, throat and eye irritation.

Best Surface Disinfectants: Clean First, Then Disinfect

To thoroughly disinfect surfaces, begin with a clean area. Soap and water are some of the best options for cleaning up dirt and grime. Additionally, soap will inactivate viruses. There are three solutions that effectively disinfect surfaces — alcohol, bleach and hydrogen peroxide or accelerated hydrogen peroxide (AHP).

Alcohol-based disinfectants contain either ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol at different levels of strength. Alcohol primarily kills bacteria but has strong activity against fungi and viruses at concentrations above 60%.

Alcohol-based disinfectants are ineffective against nonenveloped (nonlipophilic) viruses, but tend to work better against enveloped viruses,19 like SARS COV-2. Keep in mind that for hand sanitation, soap and warm water is the most effective combination. Only use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if soap and water are not available.

Chlorine bleach kills bacteria, viruses and fungi,20 but it has several major drawbacks. Bleach is known to irritate your mucous membranes and form deadly gases when exposed to heat or light. It also damages household surfaces and is highly reactive when mixed with other chemicals. Bleach requires 10 to 60 minutes of contact to disinfect surfaces.

Hydrogen peroxide, at concentrations of 1% to 7.5%, is a disinfectant that has been cleared by the FDA.21 As opposed to bleach, when hydrogen peroxide breaks down it doesn’t produce any dangerous compounds.

A better alternative is accelerated hydrogen peroxide (AHP), which works faster at killing viruses so you don’t have to wet the surface as long.22 For more information see “What Is the Best Disinfectant for Surfaces?”

Reducing Anxiety Helps Protect Your Immune System

Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces are meant to help reduce the spread of viral and bacterial infections. Another way to reduce your potential for infection is to protect your immune system and reduce feelings of anxiety and fear. Cortisol is released when you’re anxious or fearful. Evidence shows it initially mobilizes more natural killer cells — part of the immune system.23

However, in just one hour, the levels of natural killer cells fall far below your normal levels. This is one mechanism to explain why chronic stress may increase your risk of getting sick. There are strategies you can use to cope with uncertainty; discover more in “You Can Control Fear.”

One strategy to reduce anxiety is to be as prepared as possible for the circumstances you may find yourself dealing with. This includes using the proper hand-washing technique, using the best disinfectants in your home and knowing the numbers for your local emergency services (911 in the U.S.) and poison control center.

In the U.S. the number for Poison Control is 1-800-222-1222.24 Links to centers throughout Europe can be found on the European Association of Poisons Centres and Clinical Toxicologists (EAPCCT) website.25



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