4 Your Health: How to stay safe & disinfect your home without poisoning yourself


After the CDC recommended the proper cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces to help mitigate COVID-19, and suddenly there was a shortage of hand sanitizer and cleaning materials. Meanwhile, since the beginning of March, the daily number of calls to poison centers increased sharply, whereby exposures to both cleaners and disinfectants are the cause. Our health expert, Karen Owoc, is here with guidelines on how to stay safe without being poisoned.

Chemical Exposures

• According to the CDC, among all cleaner categories, bleaches accounted for the largest percentage of the increase in calls.

• Among disinfectant categories, non-alcohol disinfectants and hand sanitizers accounted for the largest percentages of the increase in calls.

• Among all exposure routes, inhalation represented the largest percentage increase in both cleaners (35%) and disinfectants (52%).

Case 1:

An adult woman filled a sink with a mixture of 10% bleach, vinegar, and hot water, and soaked her produce in this solution. She noted a noxious smell described as “chlorine” in her kitchen, then had difficulty breathing, was coughing, and wheezing, and called 911. She was transported to the emergency department with a low blood oxygen level, but improved with oxygen and bronchodilators and was discharged after a few hours of observation.

Case 2:

A pre-school age child drank an unknown amount of alcohol-based hand sanitizer. She became dizzy, fell, and hit her head. She was poorly responsive. Her blood alcohol level was elevated at 273 mg/dL or a blood alcohol concentration of .273. The limit for driving under the influence is .08 (80 mg/dL) in California.

Who’s Being Poisoned?

• The highest percentage of exposures reported to U.S. poison centers between Jan-Mar this year compared to 2019 from disinfectants are adults 60 years and older (42% increase).

• In numbers, the 0-5 age group had the highest number of reports with nearly 8,200 reports (nearly 1,400 more than 2019).

Causes of Poisoning with Cleaners/Disinfectants

• Increased use overall

• Applying more than directed on the label

• Mixing multiple chemical products together

• Not wearing protective gear

• Applying in poorly ventilated area

1. Bleach + Ammonia = Chloramines (toxic gases)

2. Bleach + Vinegar = Chlorine Gas

Other acids: some glass and window cleaners, automatic dishwasher detergents and rinses, toilet bowl cleaners, drain cleaners, rust removal products, and brick and concrete cleaners.

3. Bleach + Other Cleaners

Bleach reacts with some oven cleaners, hydrogen peroxide, and some insecticides.

Disinfectant Sprays — What you inhale is absorbed into your bloodstream

• Inhalation (breathing) of gases, vapors, dusts or mists is a common route of chemical exposure.

• Chemicals can enter and irritate the nose, air passages and lungs. They can become deposited in the airways or be absorbed by the lungs into the bloodstream.

• The blood can then carry these substances to the rest of the body.

Ingredient Disclosures Are Not Required

• Commercial cleaning product manufacturers are not required to list all the ingredients on their labels.

• A product may contain a dangerous or untested chemical and consumers would be unaware of it. Even worse, the Poison Center might have difficulty identifying the contents.

WARNING! Until a chemical is tested and evaluated, or if the results are not publicly available, current laws recognize the chemical as “safe”.

MSDS – Do They Disclose All the Chemical Ingredients?

A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is a document that contains information on the potential hazards (health, fire, reactivity and environmental) and how to work safely with the chemical product, but you should know…

• The sheets can legally omit even hazardous chemicals if the company claims they are trade secrets.

• They are NOT required to list seriously and hazardous chemicals if they don’t account for a certain percentage of the product’s weight.

Lysol® Disinfectant Spray Ingredients:

• Ethanol – 40-60% — May cause reproductive and fetal effects; tumors; and liver, kidney and heart damage.)

• Alkyl (50% C14, 40% C12, 10% C16) Dimethyl Benzyl Ammonium Saccharinate – .10-1.0%. A pesticide. Known to cause asthma in previously healthy people. Toxic to the aquatic environment with long-lasting effects.

• Petroleum gases (propane, butane) – 2.5-10%. Lung irritation; cardiac arrhythmias

• Fragrances – Lack of disclosure as to what can constitute a fragrance. These are synthetic aromas engineered by combining different chemical ingredients that may disrupt the hormone system.

• Ammonium Hydroxide — Acute aquatic toxicity; respiratory effects; damage to vision.

• Ammonium Gas — May cause respiratory effects, general systemic/organ effects, damage to vision, skin irritation/allergies/damage.

Known to the State of California to Cause Cancer

Some disinfectant sprays contain ortho-phenylphenol (a.k.a. 2-Phenylphenol, o-phenylphenol). This chemical is considered hazardous:

• Acute oral/dermal toxicity

• Skin corrosion/irritation

• Serious eye damage/irritation

• Target organ: respiratory system

The Takeaway: Not only are disinfectants and cleaners toxic to germs, they can also be toxic to people. Read the labels, know what’s in them, use them properly, and don’t mix them.

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