According to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, calls to poison control centers have increased by 20 percent.
Per the report, during the months of January through March, the poison control centers received 45,550 exposure calls related to cleaners and disinfectants, representing an increase of more than 20 percent above the norm.
Additionally, the daily number of calls to poison control centers regarding exposure to disinfectants and cleaners increased dramatically beginning in March of this year.
The report provides two examples of the types of calls received by the poison control centers.
In the first case, a woman filled her sink with a mixture of 10-percent bleach solution, vinegar, and hot water, so she could soak her recently purchased produce.
The mixture of bleach with vinegar results in the off-gassing of chlorine, which when inhaled, can cause severe breathing difficulties, pneumonia, fluid in the lungs and even death.
In the second cited case, a preschool-age child became unresponsive after consuming hand sanitizer. The report states that her blood alcohol level was elevated to more than double the level most state laws define as the limit driving under the influence.
Given the increase in cleaning and disinfecting during the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside the increased calls to poison control centers, it is a good time to provide guidance on how to safely and properly clean and disinfect.
Cleaning and disinfecting is a four-step process. Many disinfectants will not work properly if there is a high level of dirt on the surface, because organic matter can bind up the disinfectant, making it less able to effectively do its job.
For most nonporous surfaces, the first step is to remove any dirt. The second step is to clean the surface with a soap or detergent, followed by the third step, a water rinse of the surface.The last step is to apply the disinfectant according to the instruction labels.
Most disinfectants can also be used as sanitizers, and there are frequently two different sets of instructions on the label, depending on whether you wish to sanitize or disinfect.
Sanitizing generally reduces the number of most disease-causing organisms on a surface and requires a shorter “contact time,” which is the amount of time a product must remain wet while in contact with the surface.
Disinfection of a surface is done to destroy harmful microorganisms present on a surface, and generally requires a much longer contact time.
It is recommended to use the instructions on the container for disinfection. If there are specific instructions for using the product to inactivate COVID-19, you will want to use those instead.
It is important to always read and follow directions on the label of any chemical, even if the chemical appears to be harmless. Even a seemingly innocuous multi-surface cleaner is a chemical, and could cause harm if used improperly.
Understand that more is not better when it comes to the use of chemical products. Using excessive product can result in off-gassing and excessive fumes which can cause skin, eye and respiratory irritation and could result in potentially severe illness.
Never mix chemicals together as it may result in a chemical reaction that could be harmful to your health.
Always read the label to determine if you will need to wear protective equipment such as safety glasses or gloves.
Never use chemicals, even household cleaning or disinfecting agents, in poorly ventilated areas.
On another note, most household chemicals are not approved for use on food and as such should not be used on food. As I discussed in last month’s column, there have been no reported cases or evidence that coronavirus can be transmitted to people through food or food packaging.
However, the use of chemicals which have not been approved for use on food can potentially cause severe illness or death. It is sufficient to wash produce under running water.
If you are still nervous that the virus may be on food packaging, you can wash your hands, remove the food from the package and place it in a clean and dry storage container, then discard the packaging before washing your hands again.
Dr. Stephanie Smith is an assistant professor and statewide consumer food specialist for Washington State University Extension. She can be reached at email@example.com. If you have a food safety question you would like to see appear in this column, send your question to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.