As awareness of the coronavirus pandemic has spread throughout the United States, doctors who monitor activity at poison call centers have noticed an alarming trend: a significant increase in accidental exposures to household cleaners and disinfectants.
A study released Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that calls to poison hotlines this year for cases involving cleaners and disinfectants rose significantly compared with the same period over the previous two years, and charts a dramatic spike in March for both categories.
Some of the physicians who collaborated on the research with the C.D.C. had discussed their observations with one another last month.
“I was like: ‘Am I the only one seeing a big increase in exposures to these disinfectants?’” said Dr. Diane P. Calello, the medical director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, and one of the authors of the report.
Others saw the same trend, and wondered if the accidental poisonings were an insidious, secondary result of the coronavirus’s spread. The group initiated the study to determine if there was a possible link between the rise in exposures and the recommendations from public health agencies to clean and disinfect as much as possible.
From January through March, poison centers received 45,550 exposure calls related to cleaners (28,158) and disinfectants (17,392), the report said, representing overall increases of 20.4 percent compared with the same period in 2019 and 16.4 percent more than 2018.
The authors warned that the actual number of exposures was likely even higher because the data only came from reported calls for help, and some people who were exposed probably did not report their cases to the hotlines.
The call centers also did not record information about the reasons for an exposure — whether, for instance, it was because of a direct concern over the coronavirus. But the authors indicated that a connection was likely because the timing corresponded to the increase in media coverage of the coronavirus, as well as stay-at-home orders and other instructions from public health officials.
“There appears to be a clear temporal association with increased use of these products,” the authors wrote.
Dr. Calello said she works regular shifts at the New Jersey poison hotline, and she recently took a call from someone who had mistakenly wiped her face and hands with a powerful disinfectant. Dr. Calello also said she heard several calls from parents whose small children had ingested hand sanitizer.
The C.D.C. report included two anonymous cases. In one, family members found an unresponsive preschool-age child who had ingested an unknown amount of a 64-ounce bottle of ethanol-based hand sanitizer. The bottle was found open on the kitchen table.
The child was rushed to a hospital in an ambulance and admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit overnight. She was discharged and sent home after 48 hours, the report said.
In another case, an adult woman, who had heard about the importance of cleaning market produce, mixed bleach and vinegar in hot water in her kitchen sink to wash the food. The mixture of bleach and vinegar created chlorine gas, which the woman inhaled.
She was able to call 911, and recovered after being rushed to a hospital. But in more severe cases, chlorine gas, combined with moisture in the lungs, can create hydrochloric acid, which can cause severe lung damage.
“People are home and they are frightened and they want to get their home and their food as clean as possible,” Dr. Calello said. “Common sense can take a back seat.”
Dr. David Gummin, the medical director of the Wisconsin Poison Center, who was not involved in the study, said he and his colleagues have also noticed a significant uptick in calls. Similarly, they have received reports that some people have been improvising with things like ethanol and alcoholic beverages in order to navigate around shortages of hand sanitizers.
“Products are generally fairly safe if used appropriately,” Dr. Gummin said. “But now with every American trying to stay Covid-free, people are not only utilizing cleaners and hand sanitizers at record rates, but also trying to identify alternate mechanisms to keep things sanitized. The important thing is to keep them locked up and out of the reach of children.”
Dr. Calello said cleanliness is vital in fighting the disease, but some people have been “overzealous” about disinfecting.
“Educating people about what is safe is the key,” she said, “but I have a hunch the numbers will go up in April.”