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People may be “disinfecting” their food to avoid COVID-19. Getty Images
  • A recent survey finds a significant percentage of people are misusing cleaners and disinfectants to reduce COVID-19 risk, and this behavior has caused injuries.
  • In one survey, more than half of respondents reported housecleaning or disinfecting more frequently compared to preceding months.
  • Experts say cleaners and disinfectants can be very dangerous when used improperly, and that the best way to avoid infection is to clean your home normally and follow mask use and physical distancing guidelines.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

During the current pandemic, Americans are understandably frightened about contracting the new coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 and developing COVID-19.

Many have stockpiled large supplies of cleaners and disinfectants to ensure their safety.

But cleaning supplies and disinfectants are no replacement for physical distancing, handwashing, and wearing a face mask.

In fact, if used improperly, they can be harmful.

According to an online survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in May, almost 40 percent of people had misused cleaning products.

And 25 percent reported “an adverse health effect that they believed was a result” of the products in an effort to avoid COVID-19.

Porter Novelli Public Services and ENGINE Insights administered survey questions on May 4, 2020, through PN View: 360, a rapid turnaround survey used to provide insights into knowledge and practices of targeted audiences, according to researchers.

This survey was administered to 502 U.S. adults; a little more than half were female.

Results show that survey respondents reported engaging in different practices with the intent of preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission during the previous month.

Sixty percent reported housecleaning or disinfecting more frequently compared to preceding months.

And almost 40 percent reported intentionally performing at least one high-risk practice not recommended by the CDC for prevention of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.

Among the respondents who intentionally used cleaning products in a high-risk way, they reported:

  • using bleach on food items (19 percent)
  • using household cleaning and disinfectant products on hands or skin (18 percent)
  • misting the body with a cleaning or disinfectant spray (10 percent)
  • inhalation of vapors from household cleaners or disinfectants (6 percent)
  • drinking or gargling diluted bleach solutions, soapy water, and other cleaning and disinfectant solutions (4 percent)

“Disinfectants and chemical cleaners are potentially quite dangerous,” James Elder, DO, a hospitalist at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth and Texas Health Physicians Group, told Healthline.

“Depending on the specific chemical, the consequences of ingestion could range from abdominal pain, nausea/vomiting, internal bleeding, scarring of tissue leading to permanent narrowing or abnormal anatomy and, potentially, even death,” he said.

Elder explains that surfaces, such as kitchen or bathroom counters, can be cleaned using commercially available cleaners and disinfectants, and “soap and water can also be used to clean surfaces.”

He points out you can rinse raw food, like fruits and vegetables, with water after purchase, while hands should be cleaned with soap and water, rubbing hands together for 20 seconds before rinsing.

“When in public, it is prudent to wear a mask. Wearing gloves adds an additional layer of protection,” Elder cautioned.

The New Jersey Poison Information & Education System (NJPIES) warns there’s been a surge in calls due to misuse or mishandling of cleaning products.

“Anything can be a potential poison, including the household products families are using to prevent coronavirus infection,” said Dr. Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center, in a statement.

“Not following a product’s directions is a recipe for disaster. Potential household dangers involve more than just medicines, also vitamins and supplements, cleaners and sanitizers, soaps and detergents, sprays and disinfectants, and more,” she added.

Minh Nghi, DO, a hospitalist at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth and Texas Health Physicians Group, agrees.

“You should not spray most disinfectants on food. Vegetables should be rinsed in water,” he said.

Nghi adds there are some commercially available vegetable cleaners you can use “if one feels they must use something to clean their vegetables.”

He warned that you shouldn’t “clean or rinse meat. It could potentially spread harmful bacteria, such as from the outside of a chicken to the inside surface. Cooking should be sufficient to kill most germs.”

Some confusion is possibly due to statements in the news from President Donald Trump.

Trump stated that scientists could try to find a way to place strong disinfectants inside the body to treat an infection.

“I see the disinfectant — where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?” Trump said in a press briefing.

Although he did add that, “You’re going to have to use medical doctors.”

Trump later said he was joking.

“He was asking a question to an adviser about possible new avenues for research and treatment, and the comment was misconstrued as a suggestion or recommendation,” Nghi said.

“For humans, regular handwashing, regular exercise, eating healthy, and avoiding large crowds indoors would be best,” Nghi said.

He advised that if you wish to wear a mask, “be sure that it is worn properly so that it covers mouth and nose, changed when moistened, and taken off properly: using the straps to pull off from behind, not touching your face in the process, and washing hands after handling the mask.”

For surfaces, Nghi advises that periodically cleaning them and using a disinfectant that’s registered with the Environmental Protection Agency is all one needs to do.

“One doesn’t have to bleach the entire house. Just do a regular, normal cleaning schedule. It doesn’t even have to be daily if you haven’t been in contact with others outside your household,” Nghi said.

The Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) recommends you take the following actions if you suspect a poisoning injury.

If the poison is inhaled, get the person to fresh air as quickly as possible, and call the toll-free poison control helpline at 800-222-1222. It will connect you to your local poison control center.

If poison is on the skin, take off clothing the poison touched, rinse skin with running water for 15 to 20 minutes, and then call the helpline.

If poison is in the eyes, rinse them with running water for 15 to 20 minutes, and then call the helpline.

According to the HRSA, there are some situations when you shouldn’t attempt to give first aid. For example, if someone has taken too much medication, or the wrong type, immediately call the poison control helpline.

A recent survey finds a significant percentage of people are misusing cleaners and disinfectants to reduce COVID-19 risk. This behavior has caused injuries, according to the CDC.

Experts say cleaners and disinfectants can be very dangerous when used improperly, and that the best way to avoid infection is to clean your home normally and follow mask use and physical distancing guidelines.

If you or someone in your household has been harmed by misuse of cleaning products or medication, follow expert recommendations and then call the poison control helpline at 800-222-1222.