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Experts warn people are being more exposed to cleaners and disinfectants, especially among children. Getty Images
  • Calls to U.S. poison control centers about chemical cleaners and disinfectants surged 20 percent between January and March 2020 compared with the prior year.
  • The report indicates an uptick in poisoning that’s clearly associated with the spread and mounting worry of COVID-19.
  • All different age groups showed an increase in exposures to cleaners and disinfectants, but young children, those ages 5 and under, were most affected.

In the fight to keep their homes and families safe from the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, Americans are accidentally poisoning themselves with cleaning products.

According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), calls to U.S. poison control centers about chemical cleaners and disinfectants surged by 20 percent between January and March 2020 compared with the prior year.

While January and February of this year were generally similar to the previous one, calls shot up dramatically in March. The report indicates an uptick in poisoning that’s clearly associated with the spread and mounting worry of COVID-19.

Additional data has yet to be published, but the trend in poisonings is still continuing well into April, Henry A. Spiller, MS, DABAT, director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and a co-author of the report, told Healthline.

“This is part of the epidemic that people need to know about,” Spiller said. “It’s not abating. Our concern is that this isn’t a flash in the pan, like it happened one week and then it went away. This is going to be with us for a while.”

All different age groups showed an increase in exposures to cleaners and disinfectants, but young children, those ages 5 and under, were most affected.

Stay-at-home orders and self-quarantining also appear to play a role in the increased number of poisonings, as more children are at home, potentially unsupervised.

“Now so many people are really not going out, so home life is locked in. So we’re seeing an increase because of that. Essentially children, even older children who would be in day care, are now at home,” Spiller said.

Dr. Rais Vohra, the medical director of the Fresno/Madera division of the California Poison Control System, wasn’t involved in authoring the report but told Healthline that it makes perfect sense.

“We’ve certainly noticed that uptick in calls, and it aligns with the most plausible explanation, which is we’ve got a lot more kids that are staying home and a lot more people who are being mindful of cleaning their home,” Vohra told Healthline.

Among cleaning products, bleach products were responsible for the largest increase in poisonings.

Another major culprit: hand sanitizers. Calls to poison control centers about these products almost doubled (jumping 79 percent) in March compared with the year prior.

To keep children safe, store all cleaning products away from children. And while it’s likely tempting to keep hand sanitizer on a countertop or by the door so it’s easy to access, don’t leave it unsupervised around kids.

A child who has consumed hand sanitizer may vomit or appear nauseous. Depending on the amount consumed, there’s the potential for alcohol poisoning. However, most companies add bittering agents to such products to deter consumption.

“It’s basically 65 percent alcohol, 130 proof, so a lick of it we’re not concerned about. But think of a child taking a shot of whiskey. You’d be concerned, and that’s what this is,” Spiller said.

Depending on the route of exposure, chlorine, commonly found in bleach products, can result in many different symptoms, including difficulty breathing, coughing, burning of the skin, and vomiting.

Be especially cautious when using bleach and other cleaning products. Never mix bleach with vinegar or ammonia-based cleaners. Mixing these products creates a volatile mixture, producing noxious chlorine gas.

“People think, well, if one is good, two is better. It’s not,” Spiller said.

While home cleaning products and disinfectants are generally recognized as being safe when used correctly and under supervision, they’re dangerous and potentially deadly if used incorrectly.

That may seem like common sense, but doctors have had to reiterate this point after President Donald Trump appeared to suggest that injecting disinfectants into the body might be a way to destroy the new coronavirus.

In now widely censured comments, Trump said: “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?”

Experts say that under no circumstances should anyone attempt this.

“People should definitely NOT swallow or inject cleaning chemicals,” Vohra told Healthline.

“The strong disinfectants and chemicals, such as bleach, that we use to kill germs on inanimate objects, can be very harmful on the living tissues of the body. Ingesting or injecting a disinfectant chemical would result in almost immediate destruction of our body tissues in a process called liquefaction necrosis,” Vohra told Healthline.

“If not fatal, the inflammatory reaction that follows leaves permanent scars, and intensive critical care is required for a very long time,” he said.

If exposure occurs, call 911 or your local emergency services, or the National Capital Poison Center at 800-222-1222.

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