Too much of a good thing can be dangerous
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April 20, 2020 2:49 PM EDT

Disinfectants and other cleaning supplies wouldn’t be any use at all if they weren’t good at killing things like viruses, bacteria and other pathogens. But the products can present similar toxic dangers to the people who handle them, and with the use of cleaning and disinfecting supplies soaring as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, so too, according to a study just published in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, are calls to poison control centers.

A team of CDC investigators, using data from the National Poison Data System (NPDS), the American Association of Poison Control Centers, and the CDC itself, compared reports of poisonings from disinfectants such as hand sanitizers or cleaning supplies such as bleach in the three-month window from January through March 2020, to the same period in 2019 and 2018. The results were striking.

Overall the poison centers received a total of 45,550 calls in that window in 2020. That was a 20.4% increase over the same period in 2019 and a 16.4% increase compared to 2018.

As in 2018 and 2019, the largest share of the poisonings in 2020 occurred among children five years old and below: 35.7% of calls for incidents involving cleaners and 46.9% for disinfectants were in regards to this age group. Of all means of ingestion, inhalation of fumes represented the largest increase in exposure routes, jumping 35.3% for all forms of cleaners and a whopping 108.8% for disinfectants specifically.

The report included a pair of case studies showing two typical poisoning scenarios. The first involved a woman who had listened to news reports advising that all groceries be thoroughly cleaned before they are eaten. She filled her sink with hot water, a 10% bleach solution, and vinegar, and left her produce to soak in it. While unloading the rest of her groceries she noticed a chlorine-like smell, developed difficulty breathing, began coughing and wheezing, and called 911. Taken to an emergency room, she recovered with oxygen and bronchodilators.

The second case involved a preschool child who ingested an unknown amount of hand sanitizer from a 64-oz. bottle that was left out on a kitchen table. She became dizzy, fell and struck her head, and then was taken to an emergency room where her blood-alcohol level was found to be nearly 3.5 times the legal limit for driving under the influence. The child spent two nights in the hospital—one of them in the pediatric intensive care unit—and then went home.

The authors of the paper stress that there are limitations to their findings. For one thing, they write, “data on the direct attribution of these exposures to treat COVID-19 are not available in the NPDS.” In theory, at least, the increase in poisonings could be purely coincidental. On the other hand, they wrote, the NPDS data likely is an underestimate of the total number of poisonings, since not all such incidents are reported.

Either way, the CDC recommends five steps to minimize the poisoning risk: Follow the directions on product labels; don’t mix chemicals; wear protective gear like gloves; use all products in a well-ventilated area; and store chemicals out of the reach of kids. The coronavirus is dangerous enough without letting attempts at prevention be part of the problem.

 

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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