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BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Poison control centers are reporting a 20 percent increase in calls related to exposures from household cleaning products and disinfectants compared to last year, according to state officials. 

In a study comparing last year’s number of calls to the poison centers hotlines, the CDC found that in 2019 12,801 calls were made due to disinfectants, this year 17,392 have been made up until March. Most of the calls were due to children either ingesting or inhaling the chemicals.

“We know we have been encouraging everyone to clean frequently touched surfaces, but it’s important to do so safely,” said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “For example, you should wear disposable gloves to clean and disinfect. Use EPA-registered household disinfectants, and ensure proper ventilation when cleaning. Follow the instructions on the label to ensure safe and effective use of these products to protect your health.”

“Anything can be a potential poison, including the household products families are using to prevent coronavirus infection,” says Diane Calello, MD, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

In one case a preschool-aged child was found unresponsive at home and transported to the hospital. According to her family, she became dizzy after ingesting an unknown amount of ethanol-based hand sanitizer and fell and hit her head. She vomited while being transported to the hospital, where she was poorly responsive. Her blood alcohol level was elevated at 273 mg/dL (most state laws define a limit of 80 mg/dL for driving under the influence). She was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit overnight, had improved mental status, and was discharged home after 48 hours.

In another case cited by the CDC, a woman who upon hearing on the news to clean all recently purchased groceries before consuming them, filled a sink with a mixture of 10 percent bleach solution, vinegar and hot water, and soaked her produce. While cleaning her other groceries, she noted a noxious smell described as chlorine in her kitchen. 

“She developed difficulty breathing, coughing, and wheezing, and called 911. She was transported to the emergency department (ED) via ambulance and was noted to have mild hypoxemia and end-expiratory wheezing,” according to the CDC.

Bleaches accounted for the largest percentage of the increase at 62 percent, whereas non alcohol disinfectants increased at 36.7 percent and hand sanitizers at 36.7 percent this year.

“Earlier this week, I covered the importance of safely using cleaning products because of the increases in calls that we were getting at the poison center … And certainly, they should never be ingested or injected,” said Persichilli, possibly in response to a statement earlier in the week from President Trump in which he raised the idea of disinfectants “knocking out” the COVID-19 virus. “When they’re swallowed, many household products cause severe gastrointestinal symptoms. You may be repeatedly sick and even vomit. You may vomit blood. You may experience swelling of the tongue or lips, or have burns to the esophagus. You may have abdominal pain, and you may notice blood in your stools. Do not ingest or inject disinfectants.”

The New Jersey Poison Control Center recommends the following tips to prevent poisoning injuries during the COVID19 pandemic:

  • Be prepared for an emergency. Do not guess, every minute counts in poisoning situations. Save the Poison Control Center’s contact information in your phone, 1-800-222-1222 | www.njpies.org. Call FAST to treat a poisoning – Call FIRST to prevent one! Through its telemedicine capabilities, the Poison Control Center keeps thousands of residents each year out of emergency department/rooms across the state. This is especially important right now as hospitals are overwhelmed with treating severely ill COVID-19 patients.
  • Practice safe storage habits. Store potentially poisonous products like medicines, vitamins and supplements, disinfecting wipes and sprays, cleaning chemicals, and hand sanitizer in their original packaging/containers with labels. Keep them away from food and drink items as mistaken identity can lead to poisonings. All items should be stored up out of sight and reach of children and pets.
  • Read and follow the directions on the label. Review directions on a product’s labels before each use. When taking medicine, it’s important to follow the dosing instructions exactly as written to prevent overdose – right amount, at the right time, for the right person. For liquid medicine, only use a dosing device (syringe or cup) not a kitchen/soup spoon. Using a household spoon increases the risk of a dosing error – either too much medicine or not enough. Drinking alcoholic beverages while also taking medicine is extremely dangerous, as the combination may cause a serious and even fatal drug interaction.
  • Use one cleaning or disinfecting product at a time. Cleaning and disinfecting products are safe to use when following the label’s directions. When used in the wrong way, these products have the potential to cause serious health effects. Disinfectants, such as bleach, ammonia, vinegar, as well as other brand‐name disinfectants (like Lysol, Clorox disinfecting wipes) can be safely used on non‐porous surfaces for disinfection, but should never be ingested or used on skin. When applying, wear gloves to protect your skin and open windows/turn on fans for added ventilation as fumes can be overpowering if used in tight spaces. It is extremely dangerous to mix cleaning/disinfecting products together as it can form a toxic gas, putting you at risk for breathing problems and lung injuries. For example, products that contain bleach should never be mixed with products that contain ammonia or acids (vinegars, drain cleaners, rust removers, etc.).
  • Check active ingredients on over-counter medicines. Take only one medicine at a time with the same active ingredient. Many medicines contain the same active ingredients, even if they have different names and/or intended purposes. Taking these together, even if each is in the intended dose, can result in serious health consequences including liver damage.
  • Self-medicating to prevent COVID-19 infection is dangerous.  Currently, there are NO vaccines, treatments, medicines, vitamins, supplements or other products approved to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19 infection. Not everything you read on the internet is credible.  Although the use of some over-the-counter medications can be helpful in alleviating mild symptoms of COVID-19, ingesting unapproved products and chemicals such as disinfectants puts you at significant risk for poisoning and death. Best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus – practice social distancing, proper handwashing, safely clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth, cover your coughs and sneezes with your bent elbow, and wearing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) when near sick people or leaving your home.
  • Supervise kids when using hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizers have a high alcohol content, often higher than most alcoholic beverages – beer, wine and hard liquor. Although the high percentage of alcohol is necessary to effectively kill germs, these products are safe to use as long as the directions are followed. when following the directions. Hand sanitizer should never replace washing hands with soap and water, as this is always the best line of defense against germs. If using hand sanitizer, make sure the product has more than 60% alcohol to ensure it kills germs. Children should never be allowed to use hand sanitizer without adult supervision as it can be extremely dangerous if they swallow a gulp of gel (more than a lick). Alcohol affects children differently than it does adults – it does not take much to cause serious and potentially irreversible health effects of alcohol poisoning. Keep these products up high and out of sight and reach. Pets are also at risk for alcohol poisoning from ingesting hand sanitizer.
  • Prepare and serve food safely. Although anyone is susceptible to food poisoning, the effects may be more serious for certain groups like young children, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems. When bringing groceries home, put away refrigerated and frozen foods immediately to prevent bacteria growth. Wash raw foods like produce with water, but never with cleaning/disinfecting chemicals and products. Using such products on food may cause you to ingest those chemicals, which are not meant for human consumption. Remember to wash hands with soap and water before and after handling raw food. If you have any kind of respiratory illness or infection, including coronavirus, do not prepare or serve food to others as this puts them at significant risk of becoming sick.