From adults creating chlorine gas in their kitchens to toddlers guzzling hand sanitizer, Americans seem to be inadvertently poisoning themselves as they try to defend against the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
Since the beginning of March—as the COVID-19 pandemic began raging in the US—calls to poison control centers nationwide “increased sharply,” according a new study led by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although researchers cannot directly link pandemic preparedness to the poison control calls, “the timing of these reported exposures corresponded to increased media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports of consumer shortages of cleaning and disinfection products, and the beginning of some local and state stay-at-home orders,” the researchers write.
In their study—published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report—the researchers compared calls made to 55 poison control centers in the United States between January and March of 2020, 2019, and 2018.
In 2020, calls about exposures to cleaning and disinfecting products jumped 20 percent and 16 percent over the same three-month periods in 2019 and 2018, respectively. Those increases largely spanned March, as the pandemic picked up.
While all age groups seemed to be affected by the pandemic-linked poisonings about equally, young children (aged 1 to 5) tend to have the most exposures overall.
The increase in poisoning calls were due to increased exposures to bleach, non-alcohol disinfectants, and hand sanitizers—things people may use to kill SARS-CoV-2. As for exposure routes, inhalation poisonings had also increased from earlier years, according to the data.
To illustrate the concerns of COVID-19-linked poisoning, the researchers highlighted two cases. One was of an adult woman who had heard a news report that consumers should clean recently purchased grocery items. She filled her kitchen sink with a dangerous mix of 10 percent bleach, vinegar, and hot water to soak her produce, which creates toxic chlorine gas.
While she went about cleaning her other grocery items, she noted a “noxious” chlorine smell and developed breathing difficulties, wheezing, and coughing. Emergency responders took her to the hospital via ambulance where she was treated with oxygen and bronchodilators. She recovered and was able to leave the hospital a few hours later.
The other case was a preschool-aged girl who drank an unknown amount of hand sanitizer from a 64-ounce bottle she found on the kitchen table. Her family said she then got dizzy, fell, and hit her head. She was unresponsive when emergency responders arrived. They took her to the hospital via ambulance. She vomited on the way and was poorly responsive when she arrived.
There, doctors found her blood alcohol level was nearly 3.5 times the legal limit for driving. That is, she had a blood alcohol level of 273 mg/dL, where 80 mg/dL is the legal limit for driving in most states. Neuroimaging did not indicate traumatic brain injuries. Doctors admitted her to the pediatric intensive care unit, and she left the hospital after 48 hours.
The researchers note that:
To reduce improper use and prevent unnecessary chemical exposures, users should always read and follow directions on the label, only use water at room temperature for dilution (unless stated otherwise on the label), avoid mixing chemical products, wear eye and skin protection, ensure adequate ventilation, and store chemicals out of the reach of children.
Additionally, most experts think it is unnecessary to clean individual grocery items when you return home. Though research has found that SARS-CoV-2 can survive on surfaces, there is no evidence of people getting sick from food or food packaging. Most epidemiologists believe the risk of this is low. Rather, they recommend that you promptly wash your hands when your return home and follow standard food safety guidelines, including washing produce (don’t wash meat/poultry), keep raw meats separate from cooked food and produce, cook foods to proper temperatures, and keep perishable foods cold or frozen.
For sanitizing hands and common surfaces, standard alcohol-based sanitizers (60 percent alcohol or more) and diluted bleach solutions are effective. The US Environmental Protection Agency also has a list of products effective against SARS-CoV-2 here.