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Daily News Blog

24
Apr

CDC Finds Sharp Rise in Home Poisonings Tied to Disinfectant and Sanitizer Use during Covid-19 Pandemic; Safer Products Available

(Beyond Pesticides, April 24, 2020) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC) has released a study showing a sharp increase—62% in some cases—in calls to poison hotlines about exposures to toxic household cleaners and disinfectants. This poisoning comes with the advent of the novel Coronavirus pandemic, as public health and government officials, and many media outlets have sensibly recommended that people regularly disinfect “high touch” surfaces and objects in their homes and other surroundings, but have not issued warnings on toxic effects nor the availability of lower toxicity or least-toxic products. Compliance with cleaning (sanitizers) and disinfection recommendations is an important public and personal health undertaking, but in this Covid-19 rigor lies a poison problem: the toxicity, as Beyond Pesticides has explained, of some cleaning and disinfecting products that are permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for sale and use. There are safer ways to disinfect those light switches, TV remotes, doorknobs, faucets, etc.

First, a basic distinction between cleaning (also called sanitizing)and disinfecting: EPA offers definitions of the differences. “Cleaning is done with water, a cleaning product, and scrubbing. Cleaning does not kill bacteria, viruses, or fungi, which are generally referred to as ‘germs.’ Cleaning products are used to remove germs, dirt, and other organic material by washing them down the drain.” Disinfectants, on the other hand, “are chemicals that work by killing germs. These chemicals are also called antimicrobial pesticides.” The admonitions to disinfect began in earnest in March 2020, as states, localities, and federal agencies, such as CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the National Institute of Health’s NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) ramped up messaging about such disinfection.

The CDC study monitored call frequencies about such exposures for the January through March 2020 period, and found elevations in such calls compared with the same periods in 2018 and 2019. Call data were taken from the National Poison Data System (NPDS), the CDC, and the American Association of Poison Control Centers, to which calls to local poison control centers are reported. The study analysis shows a 20.4% increase in calls related to exposures to household cleaners, and a 16.4% increase in those for disinfectant exposures.

The study reports that, “The daily number of calls to poison centers increased sharply at the beginning of March 2020 for exposures to both cleaners and disinfectants.” Calls about exposures to bleach products represented 62% of the increase from 2019; inhalation was the primary exposure route in all three years, and clocked in with a 108.8% increase, 2020 over 2019, for products in the disinfectant category.

The study co-authors note that the actual exposure incidents were likely higher than the reported call numbers because undoubtedly, not everyone who is exposed reports to a poisoning hotline. In addition, no absolute correlation between incident call spikes and Covid-19 messaging could be made because hotlines did not inquire if the exposure was a function of Covid cleaning or disinfecting. But the co-authors believe the correlation between increased poisoning reports and increased use of these products “was likely because the timing corresponded to the increase in media coverage of the coronavirus, as well as stay-at-home orders and other instructions from public health officials.”

The researchers also acknowledge that insufficient vigilance over children’s access to these products is part of the story, as it always is in household poisonings of children. Although increases in poisonings happened across all age groups, “exposures among children aged ≤5 years consistently represented a large percentage of total calls in the 3-month study period for each year.” David Gummin, M.D., the medical director of the Wisconsin Poison Center, commented, “With every American trying to stay Covid-free, people are not only utilizing cleaners and hand sanitizers at record rates, but also trying to identify alternate mechanisms to keep things sanitized. The important thing is to keep them locked up and out of the reach of children.”

The study report also warns that mixing certain compounds can accidentally create dangerous chemical compounds and gases, as one study subject did when she combined bleach and vinegar, making toxic chlorine gas. It should be noted that chlorine gas, when inhaled, can combine with moisture in the lungs to create hydrochloric acid, which can cause severe damage to lungs; inhalation of other gases, through which many household exposures occur, can also damage lungs. Other “no go” mixtures of common household cleaning products include: ammonia + bleach, which creates toxic chloramine vapors; bleach + isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol, which yields chloroform; and hydrogen peroxide + vinegar, which creates corrosive parecetic acid.

No one wants to use products that can threaten health, of course. But what EPA — which regulates antimicrobial surface disinfectants — considers safe is best viewed with circumspection. EPA has a long history of permitting use of chemical pesticide compounds that pose risks to human health, including children’s, as well as to the health of other organisms and ecosystems. In late March, EPA’s pesticide program allowed 70 new disinfectants to be marketed and sold — on top of the 281 disinfectants previously permitted. The agency did so primarily by relaxing oversight on so-called “inert” or other ingredients that are not disclosed on product labels and are often highly toxic.

Beyond Pesticides wrote, late in March, about the use of disinfecting products during the pandemic: “There is tremendous pressure to use toxic disinfectants, despite the availability of safer products. In fact, while [CDC] is recommending 70% alcohol for surface disinfection, [EPA’s] Office of Pesticide Programs is advising the use of unnecessarily toxic substances, and reducing standards that govern their allowance on the market.” See the Beyond Pesticides website page, “Protecting Yourself from Covid-19 (coronavirus) without Toxic Sanitizers and Disinfectants,” which spells out a number of the compounds to be avoided.

During this Covid-19 pandemic, people need to be especially cautious about the safety of their environments, including the safety of products introduced to households. In reducing the risk of any viral (or bacterial) infection, it is important that the precautions taken don’t increase health risks to anyone, but certainly, to the more vulnerable, such as those with underlying health issues, immunocompromised people, and older folks.

There are other practices, outside of individual households, that represent particular risks during this pandemic. For example, pesticides used for turf management, mosquito control, or agricultural pests can have negative impacts on respiratory function. Given that the Covid-19 virus tends to attach itself especially to receptors in the lungs, heart, and gastrointestinal tract, those with premorbid lung conditions, or cardiopulmonary or cardiovascular diseases (and other conditions), may be at particular risk that should not be exacerbated through such exposures.

Services that homeowners might usually use, such as those that apply lawn chemicals or mosquito or tick control chemicals, should not be used; likewise, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used to control garden pests should be avoided. Beyond Pesticides recently sued the chemical applicator company, TruGreen, for misrepresenting the safety of the toxic chemicals with which it treats lawns. It also urged states to identify the spraying of toxic chemicals in or near residential areas (e.g., for agricultural purposes, lawn treatments, or mosquito control) as non-essential and hazardous, noting that “widespread exposure to lawn pesticides, which are immune system and respiratory toxicants, can elevate serious risk factors associated with Covid-19.” Eliminating such applications during the pandemic crisis can reduce exposures to compounds that may worsen impacts of infection with this virus.

Beyond Pesticides recently identified farmworkers as another group of people at higher risk during the pandemic because of their vocational exposures. Such workers are exposed through their jobs to pesticides that are respiratory irritants linked with asthmatic conditions — making them less likely to recover if they do contract Covid-19. In addition, agricultural enterprises that use pesticides are facing the same shortages of PPE (personal protective equipment) that the healthcare community is experiencing, so many farm workers go wanting for PPE. This population also often works, and sometimes lives, in very close proximity, making social distancing an impossibility. Workers in other sectors, including frontline healthcare workers, may be enduring analogous exposures to toxic disinfectants, pesticides, and other “control” chemicals.

Members of the public can “arm” themselves in fighting the novel Coronavirus with good information on protective protocols, and safer disinfection products. See more in the factsheet, “Protecting Yourself from Covid-19 (Coronavirus) without Toxic Sanitizers and Disinfectants.” That would, presumably, reduce the number of poisonings happening through people’s efforts to disinfect. One of the study co-authors, Dr. Diane P. Calello, said, “Educating people about what is safe is the key, but I have a hunch the numbers will go up in April.”

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/21/health/coronavirus-poison-hotlines-rise-in-accidents-disinfectants.html and https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6916e1.htm

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