Calls to poison control have spiked. Are you using cleaning products safely?

Calls to poison hotlines regarding exposure to disinfectants and cleaning products are up 20% over last year.
Be sure to read the labels to make sure you are using products that are safe for the purposes you want to use them for.
Be sure to read the labels to make sure you are using products that are safe for the purposes you want to use them for.Getty Images

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By Julie Compton

Paranoia over the COVID-19 pandemic may be driving many Americans to clean their homes way beyond a typical spring cleaning. In the first quarter of 2020, calls related to exposure to cleaning products and disinfectants soared by 20 percent, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We're dealing with a pandemic, but that doesn't mean that you do stuff that you probably wouldn't do if it weren't this situation. You normally wouldn't wash your produce in Lysol or use bleach to clean off an orange,” says Bruce Anderson, a toxicologist and director of the Maryland Poison Center at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, told TODAY.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, agrees. Chances are, if you do bring COVID-19 into your home, it’s because someone got infected with it outside, he said. However, there’s a small chance COVID-19 might hitch a ride on your clothing, grocery packaging, or on bags. Generally, leaving your shoes outside, changing your clothes, vigorous routine hand washing (for at least 20 seconds), regularly wiping down grocery packaging and phones and electronics with disinfectant wipes (for electronics, the CDC recommends using wipes or sprays with at least 70 percent alcohol), washing tote bags and floor mats, and keeping rooms well ventilated, should be enough to keep the virus out of your house, these experts say.

Outside the human body, viruses tend to weaken or die easily. “The virus is a piece of genetic material that is surrounded by kind of a fatty membrane,” Dr. Benjamin said. “And that's important because it means that if you just disrupt the fatty membrane and expose the genetic material, that you in effect can destroy its ability to infect you.”

In most cases, soapy water is enough to eliminate COVID-19 from hands and hard surfaces, he said, and disinfectants only need to be applied as a precaution after washing with soapy water, or if soap and water is unavailable. Still, there’s a chance the virus can make its way into your home — and if you are living with someone who is infected, you’ll want to sanitize home properly to protect yourself and family members. Here’s what experts advise.

Keep disinfectant products away from kids

Anderson says a big reason that poison centers are receiving an increased number of calls is because more children are being exposed to cleaning products and hand sanitizers than usual. Not only are people purchasing more cleaning products than normal, he said, they are leaving them in places where kids can easily get them. He said this is likely because fear of the COVID-19 is causing people to want to keep hand sanitizers and disinfectants within hand’s reach. He said parents should keep these products far out of the reach of kids (the higher, the better), and even locked away, if possible.

Understand the difference between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting are defined as follows:

  • Cleaning: Removing dirt and impurities from surfaces, which can carry viruses and bacteria (typically done with soapy water).
  • Disinfecting: Using chemical-based products to destroy germs that can linger on surfaces (does not necessarily include cleaning).
  • Sanitizing: Reducing the number of germs that could be hiding on surfaces, either by cleaning, disinfecting or both.

How to sanitize: Clean first, disinfect after

When we clean a surface with soapy water, we remove the virus and break down its fatty membrane at the same time, Benjamin explained. Usually, this will be enough to eliminate or destroy it. To play it safe, you should also disinfect surfaces after you clean them, he said, using any number of recommended products from the Environmental Protection Agency. Cleaning before you disinfect is important, he explains, because germs can hide out in dirt and grime.

What cleaning products are safe?

Almost all disinfectant products pose at least some health risks if ingested, inhaled or applied to skin, especially if they contain potentially dangerous substances like ammonia, bleach and ethanol. Be sure to read product labels to make sure you are using products that are safe for the purposes you want to use them for. If you’re unsure a product is safe or effective against COVID-19, you can look it up on the EPA’s registered list of products for use against SARS-COV-2.

Never mix cleaning products

Some disinfectant products like bleach and hydrogen peroxide pose greater risks to health than others, and may not be necessary for killing germs. These and other cleaning products should never be mixed, according to Anderson. For example, mixing bleach with cleaners, especially ammonia and vinegar-based products, is extremely toxic.

Bleach

Bleach is a common disinfectant that is extremely effective but also extremely caustic. Bleach should always be diluted with water before use. According to the CDC, bleach should be diluted by mixing 5 tablespoons (1/3rd cup) of bleach per gallon of water or 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water. When working with bleach, open windows and keep rooms well ventilated, wear gloves, a mask and eye protection.

Lysol and Clorox products

If you’re looking for a disinfectant that is minimally caustic but effective at killing germs, Lysol and Clorox products are generally good brands to use, according to Benjamin. Unlike bleach-based products, many Lysol products can be used to disinfect fabrics. Keep in mind that there are many different types of these products, and all have different uses, and some may be more effective at killing germs than others, so be sure to read labels and check the EPA-registered disinfectant products list to make sure you are buying disinfectants that will do what you need. Be sure to check expiration dates on products before you use them.

Wipes

There are many different types of wipes that are used to clean and kill germs. When shopping, be sure to carefully read the label. While some disinfectant wipes are designed for hands, others are made for surfaces. Wipes designed for surfaces can be harmful to skin, whereas wipes designed for skin may be less effective on surfaces, so be sure to read the label, Benjamin said. Wear gloves, and wash hands after using wipes on surfaces, he advised. Check the label to make sure the wipe product contains enough disinfectant to kill germs and follow the directions to make sure you’re using them properly.

How often do I need to clean my home?

Unless you are living with someone who is infected, you probably don’t need to clean your home more than you normally would, Benjamin said. If you are living with an infected person, however, you will want to clean and disinfect shared spaces and “high-touch” zones in your home (door knobs, toilets, grab bars, etc) on a daily basis using EPA-registered disinfectant products. Wear gloves when cleaning, and regularly launder the infected person’s clothes and blankets. You’ll also want to wash dishes used by an infected person right away, said Benjamin, and disinfect the sinks afterwards.

What can you do if you’ve been overexposed to a cleaning product?

If you fear that you or someone else has been made sick by a cleaning product, call poison control right away at 800-222-1222.