Poison Center Calls Spike as COVID-19 Spreads: Are You Safe?

ambulance responds to chemical exposure call
Photo by CandyBox Images / Shutterstock.com

Calls to poison centers about exposure to chemicals used as disinfectants and cleaners grew 20% in January through March compared with the same period last year, says a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Americans have come to rely more on disinfectants like hand sanitizer and cleaning agents like bleach because they can destroy the virus that causes COVID-19, as we explain in “5 Household Cleaners That Can Kill the Coronavirus.”

It’s easy to forget, though, that these tools are potentially dangerous and even can be lethal.

In the first three months of this year, 45,550 calls came in to U.S. poison control centers about exposure to cleaning and disinfecting chemicals, according to the CDC report, which was released on April 20.

That reflects an overall increase of 20.4% compared with the same three months of 2019 and is 16.4% more than in the same period in 2018. The biggest spike in these calls came in March.

The calls concerned chemical exposures by people of every age group, but the largest share of calls this year involved children age 5 and younger (35.7%), followed by people ages 20 to 59 (35.4%).

Two groups — people ages 6 to 19 and those age 60 and older — each accounted for between 8% and 9% of the calls, while ages were unknown for the rest of the calls.

Bleach, nonalcohol disinfectants and hand sanitizers are among the chemicals that prompted the most calls to poison control centers.

The most common way that people reported being exposed to such chemicals was inhalation.

One example of an inhalation case from the CDC:

“An adult woman heard on the news to clean all recently purchased groceries before consuming them. She filled a sink with a mixture of 10% 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 [inadequate oxygen levels] and end-expiratory wheezing. She improved with oxygen and bronchodilators. Her chest radiograph was unremarkable, and she was discharged after a few hours of observation.”

(Mixing bleach and vinegar creates dangerous and potentially deadly chlorine gas, as we detail in “Never Mix These 4 Combinations of Cleaners.”)

The CDC researchers say they can’t directly link the increase in poison center calls about chemical exposures to the coronavirus pandemic.

But they point out that the increase corresponds with increased media coverage of the pandemic, reports of shortages of cleaning and disinfecting products, and initial stay-at-home orders from state and local governments.

Regardless of the reasons you might use household chemicals, you can take steps to protect yourself and others in your home from being exposed to these potentially dangerous substances.

The CDC recommends following these steps to avoid chemical accidents in your home:

  1. Follow all directions on product labels.
  2. Do not mix chemicals.
  3. When diluting a chemical, such as bleach, use only water that is at room temperature to dilute it.
  4. Use protective gear for your eyes and skin.
  5. Use products in a well-ventilated place.
  6. Store chemicals where children can’t reach them.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
Have You Heard of This Best Place to Retire in 2020?
Have You Heard of This Best Place to Retire in 2020?

The best place to retire in America is one you likely are not familiar with.

8 Things I Always Buy at Costco
8 Things I Always Buy at Costco

From bacon to birthday cakes, here are my favorite deals at the popular warehouse store.

7 Ways to Shop at Costco Without a Membership
7 Ways to Shop at Costco Without a Membership

You don’t necessarily need to join to get in on the warehouse store’s savings.

13 Small Gadgets Under $20 That Make Life Better
13 Small Gadgets Under $20 That Make Life Better

These inexpensive electronics will make your day-to-day life a little easier — and happier.

Beware These 3 Tax Penalties on Retirement Accounts
Beware These 3 Tax Penalties on Retirement Accounts

Protecting a nest egg is tough — but you can make the situation far worse with some boneheaded mistakes.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

Am I Eligible for My Mother’s Social Security Benefit?
Am I Eligible for My Mother’s Social Security Benefit?

Can an adult daughter tap into her late mother’s benefit?

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

This Surprise Factor Can Raise Your Risk of Dementia
This Surprise Factor Can Raise Your Risk of Dementia

Nearly half of U.S. residents may face this threat.

Organize Your Home With These 10 Thrift Store Finds
Organize Your Home With These 10 Thrift Store Finds

Resolve to be clutter-free in 2021 with these secondhand purchases.

This Gas Station Scam Is Victimizing More Drivers
This Gas Station Scam Is Victimizing More Drivers

For the second straight year, a growing number of Americans believe they’ve fallen prey to this scam.

11 Laws You Could Be Breaking Without Knowing It
11 Laws You Could Be Breaking Without Knowing It

Seriously? Fibbing about the weather is a crime? This and other little-known legal traps await the unwary.

These Are the 3 Best Used Cars You Can Buy
These Are the 3 Best Used Cars You Can Buy

These vehicles boast reliability, safety and long-lasting value.

13 Things Seniors Can Get for Free — or Almost Free
13 Things Seniors Can Get for Free — or Almost Free

There are many ways to get cheap or free services and goods after reaching a certain age.

6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have
6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have

Few retirees have all of these documents that are crucial to their golden years — especially during a pandemic.

11 Generic Products You Should Buy at Costco
11 Generic Products You Should Buy at Costco

Not all generics are worthwhile, but these are among the best from Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand.

Internet Providers Can’t Charge You for This Anymore
Internet Providers Can’t Charge You for This Anymore

Starting this month, your ISP no longer can bill you for this fee.

Is This Treatable Condition Causing Your High Blood Pressure?
Is This Treatable Condition Causing Your High Blood Pressure?

Researchers say too many doctors are overlooking this potential source of hypertension.

These Major Appliances Got the Worst Reviews in 2020
These Major Appliances Got the Worst Reviews in 2020

Consumer Reports says these home products got the worst ratings from experts.

8 Tips for Retiring Comfortably on Social Security Alone
8 Tips for Retiring Comfortably on Social Security Alone

It’s never too early to start learning how to live well while living on less.

15 Painless Ways You Can Cut Costs in 2021
15 Painless Ways You Can Cut Costs in 2021

Follow these tips to save, so you’ll have money for things that really matter.

9 Small Expenses That Are Bleeding Your Budget Dry
9 Small Expenses That Are Bleeding Your Budget Dry

Keep more of future paychecks by eliminating these budget-busting unnecessary expenses.

3 Cable TV Companies Hiking Prices for 2021
3 Cable TV Companies Hiking Prices for 2021

Still married to your cable company? Hold on to your wallet!

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.