Science

Americans’ Overzealous Use of Cleaning Agents Causes Spike in Poison Center Calls

If you’re all out of your normal products, soap and water will work just fine.

A row of Clorox bottles on a grocery store shelf. A woman with a cart is seen farther back.
Americans are using—and misusing—cleaning supplies at unusually high rates.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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In homes across the country, Americans are sanitizing and disinfecting like they never have before. That’s great, experts say, particularly when it comes to the very healthy hand-washing habit many have developed in recent months. The only problem: Some people are going too far. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls to poison control centers have spiked, and a huge number of those calls have to do with cleaning products and hand sanitizer.

A CDC analysis published Monday shows there were about 20 percent more calls to poison centers in January, February, and March than in the same span last year—with a considerable spike at the beginning of March, when the U.S. began treating the threat of the virus as a national emergency. The pandemic is also reflected in the subjects of those calls: Those citing bleach specifically increased among calls about cleaning products (by 62 percent), while hand sanitizers and nonalcohol disinfectants each saw increases of about 37 percent.

Dr. Joshua King, the medical director at the Maryland Poison Center, said that his organization has experienced, in his estimate, 50 percent more calls related to hand sanitizer in recent months. The CDC itself said that the numbers it found “likely underestimate the total incidence and severity of poisonings because they are limited to persons calling poison centers for assistance.” King said that while he didn’t have any numbers on other kinds of calls, he believes that it’s likely every state is experiencing an uptick in cases.

There are a few obvious factors that would explain these numbers. Certainly, people are cleaning and sanitizing more than normal, and many may be experimenting with products and techniques, in part because they may not be able to buy their normal household cleaning supplies at the grocery store. Notably, many people are attempting to clean their actual groceries. The CDC analysis cited one case in which a woman soaked her produce in a mixture of vinegar, water, and 10 percent bleach solution to cleanse it, but subsequently developed respiratory problems and ended up being treated for hypoxia at an emergency room.

King noted that there are other things at play besides our overactive cleaning habits. Children, for example, are more likely to ingest household substances of all sorts because they are home, often with working parents, and harder to supervise there than they would be in school or at a day care. Or maybe they’re with relatives not normally accustomed to child care. “For example, Grandma is on heart medication and accidentally drops it, and the child gets into it,” King said.

It should be noted that hand sanitizer does not usually cause serious problems unless a child ingests a significant amount of it, which can cause dangerous intoxication and require medical attention. (People do sometimes intentionally ingest hand sanitizer as an alcohol substitute, although this phenomenon isn’t new. “That’s usually teenagers,” King said.) But beyond a few extreme cases, hand sanitizer issues can generally be resolved by rinsing off an affected area with water.

More intense cleaning solutions, particularly bleach, tend to have worse effects. Some people called into poison control after using an industrial bleach meant to be diluted or after using bleach in poorly ventilated spaces. Others ran into problems by mixing bleach with ammonia, acids, or other cleaners, resulting in toxic gases.

The pandemic doesn’t just make poisoning more likely; it also makes treating poisoning cases more difficult, King said. His center has noticed that some people it tells to go to the emergency room will instead stay home, out of fear of exposure at the hospital. And it’s creating other problems: “The biggest concern that poison centers have is that people might take medications without prescription to self-treat coronavirus,” King said. A case in Arizona made news when a couple consumed chloroquine phosphate, a fish tank cleaning chemical, after seeing that it contained the active ingredient in a malaria medication President Donald Trump trumpeted as an effective treatment for the virus. The husband died and the wife was sent to the ICU.

So how do you make sure to eliminate any possible viral pathogens without accidentally poisoning yourself? King said there’s no need to take extreme measures or mess with industrial cleaners at all. Stick to the normal stuff you’re used to, and stick to soap and water if you’ve run out of household cleaners—it’ll work just as well.

As for food, the CDC has said you’re not very likely to come in contact with the virus from packaging on your food, so there’s no real need to disinfect your groceries. (The real risk when shopping is from respiratory droplets from other shoppers.) But if it would bring you peace of mind, using soap and water is the best bet, according to King, as long as you’re careful to rinse all the soap off (soap residue can make you sick). If you’re still anxious, leave your nonperishable products somewhere you won’t touch them, as the virus will lose most of its infectiousness in 24 hours and virtually all of it in 72. If you’re worried about vegetables, King said, cooking them would do the trick. After unpacking the groceries, wipe down your counters—with a normal, safe household disinfectant—and then wash your hands.

If you do think you may have used hand sanitizer or a cleaner in a way that it shouldn’t be used, or if you’re experiencing any kind of irritation or difficulty breathing after using a cleaning product, call the poison control center. That way, a professional can tell you whether you need to seek out immediate help—or leave the emergency room and the resources needed to staff it for COVID-19 patients.