Pharmacists and nurses manning the Connecticut Poison Control Center’s phone lines this past weekend were busy with calls after President Donald Trump’s suggestion last week that scientists look at how disinfectants like bleach could be ingested or injected into humans as a treatment for the coronavirus.
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“Following that, poison centers throughout the country had calls such as people wanting to clean out their sinuses, and wanting to use a neti pot to clean out their sinuses but putting bleach in there,” said Dr. Suzanne Doyon, medical director at the center, “because bleach is supposed to kill the virus in a ‘few minutes.’”
Trump later walked back his comments, which were made during Thursday evening’s national press briefing, and claimed that he spoke sarcastically, that it wasn’t a serious suggestion. Earlier that evening, federal officials presented research on how bleach and other products were effective in quickly killing the virus on surfaces.
State and federal public health officials say false and conflicting information about the use of disinfectants could contribute to an uptick in calls at poison control centers, as well as more harmful outcomes.
To be clear, Doyon and other physicians stressed that people should not ingest, inject or consume in any way bleach or other disinfectant products -- not in an attempt to kill the coronavirus, or for any other reason.
“We’ve had other people who wanted to gargle with bleach, again, thinking that’s going to kill the virus in a few minutes,” Doyon said. “And thankfully they called the poison center ahead of time, and we will tell them bleach and these disinfectants, they’re not meant to be used on or in the human body. Doing so would be extremely dangerous, will surely lead to lots and lots of problems and even death.”
The president’s remarks prompted health and emergency management departments around the country to post warning messages on social media. Some household cleaning product companies like Lysol issued statements reiterating the proper usage of cleaning chemicals.
“As with all products, our disinfectant and hygiene products should only be used as intended and in line with usage guidelines,” officials said in a statement. “Please read the label and safety information.”
Reminder: Lysol disinfectant and hygiene products should only be used as directed and in line with usage guidelines pic.twitter.com/yPVhvINxbU
— Lysol (@Lysol) April 24, 2020
Public health experts noted that a rise in accidental and unintentional poisonings and exposures predates Trump’s comments.
Doyon said while they can’t say for sure without more investigation, it makes sense that places are seeing a spike in calls given that people are cleaning more because of the virus.
In Connecticut, she and her team first noticed that calls about hand sanitizer ingestion among children were increasing.
“We compared the month of March 2020 to the month of March 2019, and the number of calls have doubled,” she said.
Since the pandemic began, Doyon said other calls have involved people using bleach to disinfect grocery produce that they will then eat; residents mixing bleach with other household cleansers like ammonia, which creates a dangerous noxious vapor; and people ingesting large amounts of dietary supplements that lead to toxicity.
Nationally, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week says that poison centers throughout the country received a total of 45,550 exposure calls related to cleaners and disinfectants from January through March -- a 20% increase over the number of calls received during the same time period last year.
CDC authors wrote that they couldn’t provide a definite link between exposures and COVID-19 cleaning practices without more detailed case information, but they also stated that “the timing of these reported exposures corresponded to increased media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports of consumer shortages of cleaning and disinfection products, and the beginning of some local and state stay-at-home orders.”
People can contact the Connecticut Poison Control Center’s 24-hour help line at 1-800-222-1222.