As Covid-19 continues its sweep across the country, the CDC urges Americans to regularly clean and disinfect all high-touch surfaces to help slow the virus’s spread. In our zeal to clean and disinfect doorknobs, countertops, and cell phones, we could be exposing ourselves—as well as our children and grandchildren—to a brew of toxic chemicals.
The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published online April 20, revealed a dramatic increase in the number of calls to the nation’s 55 poison control centers, as reported to the National Poison Data System (NPDS). Between January and March 2020, these centers received 45,550 calls about exposures to cleaners and disinfectants—a 20 percent increase compared to the same three-month period in 2019 (37,822). The authors say the number of calls likely underestimates the number of exposures since it accounts only for people who called centers for assistance and not those who were exposed but didn’t call.
The NPDS data can’t prove that Covid-19 cleaning directly led to the poison center calls, but the timing suggests a pretty clear link. The reported exposures happened just as media coverage of the pandemic ramped up, stay-at-home orders went into effect, and there was a run on cleaning and disinfecting products.
Exposure to chlorine bleach—one of the products the CDC recommends for disinfecting surfaces—accounted for the largest percentage of the increase (62 percent) in calls. Nonalcohol disinfectants other than bleach (37 percent) and alcohol-based hand sanitizers (37 percent) made up the biggest percentage of the increase among disinfectants.
The largest bump in exposures came from breathing in the fumes from cleaners and disinfectants. Poison control centers had 35 percent more reports of people accidentally inhaling any type of cleaner, and 109 percent more reports of people accidentally inhaling disinfectants.
How to clean and disinfect safely
The CDC recommends that you regularly clean and disinfect all high-touch surfaces—including doorknobs and handles, light switches, countertops, phones, keyboards, toilets, and sinks—to prevent coronavirus transmission.
Use a product on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of disinfectant products, which includes sprays, surface wipes, and other liquids, that are effective against the new coronavirus—SARS-CoV-2. Sometimes the same disinfectant is sold under different brand names, so check the number on the product’s label against the EPA registration number on the site to ensure the one you’ve chosen works against coronavirus. (If the surface is outwardly dirty, scrub it with water and soap or detergent before wiping it with disinfectant.)
Leave the disinfectant on the surface for the amount of time recommended on the label (sometimes called the “contact time” or “dwell time”) to kill the virus. You should wash surfaces first with water and soap or detergent.
To keep you and your family safe while using the products, follow these tips:
- Always follow the directions on the product label to make sure you’re using the cleaner correctly.
- Keep children and pets out of the room until the cleaning product has dried and you can no longer smell it.
- Leave the windows or door open and turn on the fan to keep the room ventilated. If the odor becomes too strong, step away from the area until the smell dissipates.
- Wear rubber or disposable gloves and protective eyewear, as well as a long-sleeved shirt and long pants.
- Never mix bleach with ammonia, vinegar, or other household chemicals. The combination could create toxic fumes.
- Dilute bleach with water, adding four teaspoons of regular unscented chlorine bleach per quart of water.
- Don’t use any disinfectant cleaner, including wipes, on your skin or on food. Never ingest any disinfectant or other cleaning products.
- Wash your hands with soap and water after using any disinfectant product, including wipes.
- Close the cleaning product lids tightly after you’ve finished using them. Store them in a high or locked cabinet, far out of children’s reach.
Do Eco-Friendly Cleaners Destroy the Coronavirus?
Anyone who’s made the switch to green cleaning products might be frustrated in their search for environmentally friendly products that work against the coronavirus. But there are some good options, provided you know what to look for.
This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.
Published July 16, 2020