Are We Going to Clean Ourselves Sick?

It wouldn’t be going out on the proverbial limb to say that people are using all sorts of cleaning and disinfecting products with significantly greater frequency and regularity than they have at any other time in history. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for April 20, 2020 contains the article, “Cleaning and Disinfectant Chemical Exposures and Temporal Associations with COVID-19.” This article describes an analysis of data from exposures reported to the National Poison Data System and shows from January-March 2020 there was a 20.4 percent and 16.4 percent overall increase in exposure calls compared to the same time period the previous two years, respectively. The authors state that while the data does not show a definite link between exposures and COVID-19 cleaning efforts, there is apparently a clear temporal association with increased use of cleaning/disinfecting products.

Not only has the frequency and regularity of the usage of these products increased, but the manner in which they are used very likely has changed as well. For example, the Governor of Illinois has suggested wiping down your groceries (he’s not alone). It is likely that some people are using disinfecting wipes/solutions (purchased or homemade)—that kill 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria —to wipe down their groceries, in addition to other commonly touched items in their homes, cars, and offices. Wiping down groceries and the overuse of cleaning/disinfecting products does not seem like an intended use, but given the apparent consensus that a vaccine will not be widely available for 12-18 months, it is possible that people may continue using these products in new ways and with increased frequency and regularity for that extended period of time, if not longer.

While the chemicals and compounds in cleaning/disinfecting products and solutions are generally safe, like anything, the dose makes the poison. Consumer Reports, probably somewhat fortuitously, published an article warning of some risks reportedly associated with QAC’s (Quaternary ammonium compounds) such as alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride or other types of benzyl ammonium chloride, in February. QAC’s are the active ingredient in some disinfecting products and are also registered pesticides with the EPA. The scientific study behind the Consumer Reports piece is something we intend to explore in subsequent posts. For now, the manufacturers and distributors of cleaning/disinfecting products—and all chemicals possibly used in homemade cleaning solutions—should be aware of the report and risks documented in association with their products. This is especially true in this dynamic environment where the frequency, regularity, and manner in which these products are being used, and the way consumers exposed to the ingredients, is changing.

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