This article was first published in The Montreal Gazette.
A recent survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report has highlighted a frightening truth about the general public: A surprising number of people do not know how to handle cleaning products properly.
In fact, the survey found that about one in three adults were engaging in “high-risk” activities to prevent COVID-19. If you’re wondering what constitutes high-risk, one of the more common transgressions was washing fruits and vegetables with bleach.
When it comes to infection control, cleanliness might indeed be next to godliness, and most guidelines recommend cleaning what are termed high-touch surfaces. These include doorknobs, light switches, tabletops, countertops, sinks, toilets, and every other surface that many people will touch repeatedly over the course of the day.
How much these high-touch surfaces contribute to the spread of the coronavirus relative to direct human-to-human spread is still unclear. But given that most other bacteria and viruses spread when we fail to wash our hands and the things our hands touch, there is little doubt that regular cleaning and disinfecting these high-risk surfaces has a benefit.
But cleaning products are not benign agents. Regular soap does wonders for cleaning your hands and preventing the spread of sickness but will in turn make you violently ill if you for some reason try to eat it.
It used to be considered common knowledge that you should be careful around cleaning products, especially with regards to young children, who seem to have a knack for getting into everything. But recent evidence suggests a certain blasé attitude when it comes to the potential toxicity of cleaning products. The Tide-Pod challenge of 2018 illustrated just how cavalier some people are about these potentially dangerous products.
But with COVID-19 the degree to which this complacency is widespread has become clear. Between January and March, poison control centres in the U.S. received more than 45,000 calls related to cleaners and disinfectants, a roughly 20 percent jump compared with last year. It is worth noting this was before President Donald Trump’s comments at the end of April about injecting disinfectant into your body.
The CDC surveyed 500 U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 86. Their median age was 46 and there was a roughly equal split of men and women. The results were sobering. One in five adults did not know cleaning products should be kept out of the reach of children and only half knew the same applies to hand sanitizers. Roughly half of those surveyed did not know bleach should not be mixed with ammonia and a third did not know you should wash your hands after handling cleaning products.
The worst came with regard to high-risk practices. Of those surveyed, 39 percent engaged in at least one high-risk practice, which included washing fruits and vegetables with bleach, using household cleaners on bare skin, misting their bodies with alcohol spray, inhaling the vapour of cleaning products, or gargling with bleach.
Accidental poisonings with cleaning products are a perennial problem but can be greatly minimized with some simple precautions. Storing cleaning products in locked cupboards or on high shelves out of the reach of children is easy to do and protects the little ones, who are naturally curious and do not know any better. But the high-risk practices described in the CDC survey were performed by adults who arguably should.
If there is a second wave of COVID-19 — and it seems like a reasonable assumption there will be — then we will likely need to do a better job of educating the public about how to use cleaning products safely to avoid calls to poison control. We can start with the basics. Do not gargle with bleach.