With “stay at home” orders in effect throughout much of the United States and enhanced guidelines in place for cleaning and disinfection to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there has been an unexpected surge in the number of accidental poisonings involving household cleaning supplies reported nationwide. According to several different news outlets, there has been an increase in the number of calls to poison control centers about ingesting disinfectants and being exposed to toxic fumes from mixing together common household chemicals. With children saying at home and parents stocking up on cleaning supplies to combat coronavirus, consumers are encouraged to pay careful attention to how they store and/or mix their household cleaning products.
To prevent the spread of coronavirus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces like countertops, doorknobs and tabletops, and many parents following these guidelines may be leaving out regularly used household cleaning products that might otherwise be tucked away in a cabinet or on a hard-to-reach shelf. With schools closed across the country and most children home all day, often with parents who must work from home, there may be a greater risk of accidental poisonings from cleaning supplies and chemicals that are left within the reach of children.
While children face a unique risk, this spike in cases involving accidental poisonings are not limited to children. Many adult consumers are finding that cleaning products and sanitizers are in short supply in stores and from online retailers and are resorting to making their own in order to keep their homes and hands clean. What many people don’t realize is that trying to make more potent disinfectants by mixing common household chemicals can create toxic fumes or harsh chemicals that can irritate their lungs or skin. For instance, mixing bleach and ammonia together produces a gas called chloramine and exposure to chloramine can cause irritation to the nose, eyes, throat and airway, with symptoms possibly lasting up to 24 hours.
According to a news report from Fox 25 in Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information has seen a 46% increase in calls regarding poisoning from household disinfectants. Laura Brennan, the poison control center’s education coordinator, attributes the sudden spike in calls to increased cleaning efforts in the midst of the COVID-19 public health crisis. “People are using non-traditional chemicals to wash their hands, people are using more wipes, cleaning powders, they’re washing groceries, they’re leaving products maybe out on the counter,” she says, “and they’re not using the proper storage like they normally would.”
Arizona poison control centers have also reported an increase in the number of calls related to accidental poison ingestion, as have other centers nationwide. According to the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center in Phoenix, there has been a nearly 50% increase in calls and the center’s director Maureen Roland expects this number to continue to climb. “Especially with kids under the age of 12, we’ve seen about a 12% increase, just in general with medications and other household items,” says Roland. “The fears right now have obviously got people buying more of these products and having them in the home. Our recommendation is that people make sure they think about these products and put them up and away.”
Making a conscious effort to properly store household cleaners and chemicals could mean life and death for a child who might try to ingest them, says Brennan. And the same safety precautions should be taken by consumers attempting to make their own homemade cleaners or hand sanitizers. When mixing household chemicals, always consult a reputable source with information about safe chemical use and mixture amounts and take care to ensure that the container you use to store the homemade cleaner is properly labeled. To avoid inhaling potentially toxic fumes, you should never mix bleach with ammonia, rubbing alcohol or vinegar, nor should you ever mix hydrogen peroxide with vinegar. You should also only use one brand of drain cleaner at a time.