The Peril of cleaning with chemical disinfectants


April 22, 2020
Dr. Patricia O’Neill

This week, a new study of chemical cleaners and disinfectants was published by the CDC[1] and reported on by Time magazine.[2] It pointed out that the use of these products had expanded in the U.S. following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and asked whether there were any implications from this. Specifically, drawing on data retrieved from 55 poison control center hot lines, the study compared the number of poisoning cases recorded by the National Poison Data System (NPDS) for the first three months of 2020 to the same period in 2018 and 2019. The results showed an increase of 20.4% over 2019 and a 16.4% increase over 2018.


In the period 2019 to 2020 alone, cases related to products with bleach increased by 61.2%, and those connected to hand sanitizers and non-alcohol disinfectants increased by 36.7%. Inhalation was the primary means of exposure, with an increase of 35.3 % in cleaning product cases, and a 108.8% increase for all disinfectants. Chemical exposure ranged across all age groups but was particularly pronounced for children under five for each year (39.9% to 47.3%).


Two case studies were presented by the authors. In the first, a woman cleaning her produce with a combination of bleach, vinegar, and hot water encountered difficulty breathing, and began coughing and wheezing. In the second, a preschool age child ingested hand sanitizer, causing her to become dizzy and subsequently fall and hit her head. Both cases resulted in trips to the Emergency Room, but neither case resulted in any permanent disability.


The gist of the CDC study was to warn that precautions should be taken when using chemical cleaners and disinfectants. Readers were advised to, 1) follow directions; 2) not mix chemicals; 3) wear protective gear; 4) ensure the working area is well-ventilated; and 5) store chemicals out of the reach of children. The limitations of the study were acknowledged.


Similar statistics were discussed by John Moore in his 2018 article for Facility Cleaning & Maintenance magazine entitled “A Natural Solution to Chemical Hazards.” Together with other research, evidence is mounting that chemical cleaners and disinfectants create unnecessary risks

[1] Chang A, Schnall AH, Law R, et al. Cleaning and Disinfectant Chemical Exposures and Temporal Associations with COVID-19 — National Poison Data System, United States, January 1, 2020–March 31, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. ePub: 20 April 2020. DOI:
[2] Klugler, J, As Disinfectant Use Soars to Fight Coronavirus, So Do Accidental Poisonings, Time, April 20, 2020.

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