CDC says increased use of bleach and hand sanitizer to fight coronavirus is prompting more poison control calls. Here's how to safely disinfect your home — and yourself.

Abby Haglage
·6 min read

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Monday found that Americans may be increasingly unsure about what household cleaners are safe amid the coronavirus pandemic. Between January and March, the 55 poison control centers operating nationwide received 45,550 exposure calls related to cleaners and disinfectants, a 20 percent increase in calls from the same period last year.

Certain products seemed to be specifically driving the increase, including bleach, nonalcohol disinfectants and hand sanitizers, with the most common exposure route being inhalation. The report goes on to detail two cases, one in which a woman soaked her groceries in a bleach mixture, then later developed difficulty breathing that required a visit to the ER. The second case centered on a preschool-aged child who “was found unresponsive” after consuming an unknown amount of ethanol-based hand sanitizer, leading to a blood alcohol level of 273 mg/dL — more than three times the legal limit for driving in most states.

In order to prevent more increases in calls to poison control centers, the CDC recommends reading all labels of cleaning supplies and not mixing them. To help give even more advice on how to stay safe, Dr. Kavita Patel, a Yahoo medical contributor and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, spoke with Yahoo Life about what you need to know to stay safe.

Yahoo Life: With cases of the coronavirus continuing to increase, many seem concerned about how to keep their homes and belongings virus-free. What are some best practices you’d suggest?

Dr. Kavita Patel: Best practices are to make sure chemicals are far out of reach from children (this includes bleach wipes which usually have a bit of liquid at the bottom of their containers). Another element to consider is to wear household gloves (like the kind you use when you wash dishes or clean toilets) when handling chemicals. Remember that the gloves themselves don’t protect you from COVID because they can get contaminated themselves but wearing them in dealing with chemicals is [a way] to protect your skin from the often harsh elements of these chemicals.

One of the main increases in calls to poison control involved bleach, specifically using them to disinfect groceries. Is using bleach to disinfect groceries ever a safe option, and should Americans be worried about going to great lengths to disinfect their groceries?

There have been no recorded transmissions in the world of food to human transmission but the best way to think about groceries is really about the packaging on the outside — boxes, etc. Again this is very unlikely to be the source of transmission but if people want to be cautious, they can either leave packages alone for at least 24 hours and then open or wipe down or open and then discard the external packaging and of course wash your hands all along and clean any countertops or tables.

A common question involves what to do with food or groceries being delivered to your home. How should individuals ensure that these things are safe?

The best way to handle any delivery is to engage in contactless delivery — put a sign out to leave things on a porch or somewhere convenient so that there is no human to human contact which is the largest risk. The rest of it, honestly, is more important to just practice good hand hygiene. Open food containers and transfer the food into something else and wash hands every step of the way.

What about clothes coming into the home, should those be disinfected?

With things like dry cleaning of laundry, also best to either leave those items in a place like a garage or closet that you don’t use, etc., for at least 24 hours keeping in mind some studies have shown evidence of the virus on certain surfaces for a bit longer, but by 24 hours, the majority of the virus is gone.

Another major driver of calls to poison control centers in the study was alcohol-based hand sanitizer, with a case report showing a preschool aged-child who had accidentally consumed a dangerous amount. How effective is hand sanitizer in preventing COVID-19, and when should people be using it?

There are no studies that I know of to show the effectiveness of different types of sanitizer against coronavirus and even the labels approved by the FDA for use over the counter are careful about making claims that these can kill viruses or bacteria in general. So the truth is you should use these only when you cant really get 20 seconds of handwashing in with warm soapy water. But when those things aren't available, hand sanitizers or hand wipes are better than nothing.

In an earlier interview with Verizon Media CEO Guru Gowrappan you mentioned that it would be a good idea for individuals to try and sanitize public areas such as elevator buttons. But when it comes to surfaces in your home, what needs to be regularly disinfected?

Countertops and bathrooms are important — toys, too, but if you really only have the same household members dealing with the toys, etc.; those are low risk. Lysol wipes are good or, when in doubt, soapy water and a clean rinse.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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