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During a press briefing on Thursday, President Donald Trump mused aloud about injecting disinfectants to cure people with the coronavirus. “I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute,” he said, following a presentation by a top Department of Homeland Security scientist on the efficacy of disinfectant products, warmth, and sunlight against the coronavirus on surfaces. “And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets inside the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.”
The comments received massive pushback. Public health leaders and lawmakers called them dangerous. The Maryland Emergency Management Agency reported that it had received calls about disinfectants and warned citizens not to use them for self-treatment. Lysol also quickly put out a statement: “As a global leader in health and hygiene products, we must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route).” Facing this backlash, Trump later said he was speaking “sarcastically” in order to bait the media.
Let’s just say you were wondering, though: What would happen to your body if you injected or ingested disinfectants?
Depending on the disinfectant and the quantity, you could experience organ failure, anemia, or cardiac arrest, and die. Disinfectants are biocides, which means they’re meant to disrupt biological systems. The signage mounted behind Trump when he made his initial comments specifically mentioned bleach and isopropyl alcohol as commonly available disinfectants that people can use to rid surfaces of the virus.
Small studies have indicated that intravenous injections of large quantities of bleach can cause acute kidney injury and thrombosis, or blood clots. Bleach causes red blood cells to rupture, thus preventing them from carrying oxygen to essential organs and other parts of the body, which could possibly bring about a slow death. The chemical would inflame the lining of the veins, causing the blood clots along with an intensely painful burning sensation at the injection site and sometimes near the chest. The chlorine in bleach can also alter the pH of one’s blood, possibly triggering cardiac arrhythmias and kidney damage. The kidney also filters the body’s blood, putting it in more direct contact with contaminants like bleach. There’s a good chance that the bleach will lead to death, though the extreme pain involved usually stops people from injecting large quantities of the chemical, which is why drinking it may be more fatal.
Injecting isopropyl alcohol would similarly cause irritation of the blood vessels, rupturing of cells, and blood clots. Alcohol toxicity is also a danger, though the body does tend to break down alcohol quickly, so it would need to be present in fairly large quantities. Drinking isopropyl alcohol can cause internal bleeding and depletion of stomach lining.
Not much has been documented about the exact effects of injecting disinfectants because it would be unethical to conduct such a lab experiment and because it’s much more common for people to consume them orally, which usually leads to bleeding and perforations in the stomach lining and burns in the esophagus. Emergency rooms do sometimes treat intravenous drug users who have injected disinfectants because of urban myths that it reverses opioid overdoses or cleans one’s blood of impurities from the narcotics. These patients usually experience blood clots and inflammation at the injection site.
If you have been infected with the coronavirus, you technically could kill it by injecting disinfectants, since you might die and the virus would no longer have a host. The coronavirus is zoonotic, meaning that it can be transmitted from animals to humans; such diseases typically evolve so that they don’t quickly kill their hosts before they have time to replicate. It’s unlikely that a disinfectant that’s been injected into a limb would come in contact with the virus, because it mostly affects the respiratory tract. The disinfectant would have the highest concentration in the blood vessels near the injection site. Trying to inject chemicals directly into the lungs is extremely difficult because it would involve piercing the chest wall. Even if the disinfectant were to reach the respiratory tract, it would just do more damage to the lungs than the virus would.
Explainer thanks Peter Chai, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and medical toxicology specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Ernest Chiodo, a toxicologist who formerly served as the medical director for the Detroit Health Department; and Ted Simon, who formerly served as a senior toxicologist for the Environmental Protection Agency.