Drug Information Center Warns Against Exposure to Cleaning Products and Disinfectants

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AUBURN, Alabama – With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been exposed to new phrases, practices and ways of life. Among them is an increase in the purchase and use of multipurpose cleaning agents as people try to disinfect their homes and protect against the virus.

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With the additional cleaning comes hidden dangers, such as over-exposure or ingestion of cleaning agents. According to Dr. Bernie Olin, director of the Auburn University Harrison School of Pharmacy Drug Information Center, special care needs to be taken to make sure you are not poisoning yourself or those in your household.

“With increased usage of cleaners, disinfectants and sanitizers, there comes increased danger,” said Olin. “Extra care should be taken not to ingest, inhale and cause other exposure to these products, and definitely keep them out of reach of children.”

With published reports stating that the COVID-19 virus can remain viable as air droplets and on surfaces for extended periods of time, many have taken heed and emptied store shelves of cleaning products, hand sanitizer and other products

This increase in usage prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Association of Poison Control Centers to analyze data from the National Poison Data System for increased reports of chemical exposures.

What was found was an increase in the three-month time period, January to March, as compared to the two previous years in the same time frame. An increase of 20.4% was found in reports related to cleaning products (45,550 exposures) and a 16.4% increase related to disinfectants (28,158 exposures).

“Calls to poison control centers about cleaning product exposures rose dramatically in March,” said Dr. Marilyn Bulloch, associate clinical professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice. “The majority of exposures were ingested, but more than 30% of cleaner exposures and more than 18% of disinfectant exposures were ocular or dermal, most likely from an unintentional spill.”

The most common age group involved was children under five years old, accounting for more than a third of all cases involving cleaning agents and just under half of those related to disinfectant exposure.

“It is also important to note that in the first week of March, sales of multipurpose cleaners rose 148% and aerosol disinfectants 385% compared to the same time in 2019,” said Bulloch. “Although not credited with data, the closing of schools and childcare centers around the same time provided more of an opportunity for young children to be exposed to these substances than ever before.”

The main culprit in many of the cases was bleach, commonly found in cleaning products, disinfectants, nonalcohol disinfectants and hand sanitizers. Oral ingestion and inhalation were the most common actions that led to reports.

“Bleach is a very common product in households, very effective as a disinfectant and potentially very dangerous,” said Olin. “Its primary toxicity is its corrosive nature, particularly on skin and mucous membranes. If ingested, it can do great damage to the gastrointestinal tract and if enough is ingested can cause widespread metabolic problems.

“Exposure to skin can result in irritation to severe chemical burns, depending on length of exposure and concentration of solution. However, the harmful effects of bleach may be reduced if quick action is taken after exposure.”

Along with the cleaning supplies, another increasing problem has been from hand sanitizers. A primary ingredient in many sanitizers is either ethyl alcohol, isopropanol or isopropyl alcohol with amounts ranging from 40% to 95%. Toxicity is usually unintentional and seen in children.

January and February saw slightly higher than average reports to poison control centers related to hand sanitizer, but March brought a significant increase, coinciding with public awareness of COVID-19.

“Fortunately, it requires a severe overdose to be fatal, but due to the high alcohol content, even a small ingestion can cause alcohol poisoning in a child,” said Olin. “Effects usually seen, always depending on dose, are central nervous system depression similar to alcohol and metabolic disturbance due to acetone being a metabolite of isopropanol.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remind everyone that children are curious and have little sense of judgment, and denying access to danger is the best and safest action. Cleaning substances and anything else that could be potentially harmful if ingested, spilled or inhaled should be stored safely out of reach. For older children, it may help to explain the potential harmful effects to a child rather than assuming that they know them already.

“While children are the ones most commonly affected, adults should be sure to read and follow directions,” said Olin. “Generally, do not play amateur chemist and mix cleaning products together. There are many chemical reactions that could occur that are hazardous to your health.”

Among the recommendations to prevent unnecessary chemical exposures, always read and follow labeled directions, use water at room temperature for dilution (unless otherwise directed), avoid mixing chemical products, always wear eye and skin protection, use products in a well-ventilated area and store all chemicals, cleaning supplies and disinfectants out of the reach of children.

If poisoning is suspected, call the National Capital Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 and it will automatically connect you with the nearest poison control center in your area. You can also visit www.poison.org for more information.


About the Harrison School of Pharmacy

Auburn University’s Harrison School of Pharmacy is ranked among the top 20 percent of all pharmacy schools in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report. Fully accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE), the School offers doctoral degrees in pharmacy (Pharm.D.) and pharmaceutical sciences (Ph.D.) while also offering a master’s in pharmaceutical sciences. The School’s commitment to world-class scholarship and interdisciplinary research speaks to Auburn’s overarching Carnegie R1 designation that places Auburn among the top 100 doctoral research universities in the nation. For more information about the School, please call 334.844.8348 or visit http://pharmacy.auburn.edu.

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Last Updated: April 6, 2020