Each blog entry addressing the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 brings news of the ever-widening scope of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Johns Hopkins Virus Tracker as of this writing on April 24, 2020, worldwide cases number more than 2,766,000 cases and deaths number more than 194,000. Spread across the U.S. continues, with more than 884,000 cases and 50,000 deaths reported. New York continues to have by far the greatest concentration of cases and deaths in the U.S., with 271,000 cases and 21,000 deaths. The New York cases accounts for approximately 30% of U.S. cases and 42% of U.S. deaths.

As the awareness of the need for disinfects and their use has grown, the misuse of such products and potential poisonings from their use has spiked. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) published an article in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) of April 20, 2020 entitled Cleaning and Disinfectant Chemical Exposures and Temporal Associations with COVID-19.

The article draws on data from Poison Control Center calls. There are fifty-five poison control centers spread across the U.S., each of which provides 24 hour a day professional advice to callers regarding exposures to poisons. The data collected from the call are uploaded to the CDC’s National Poison Data System (NPDS) on a nearly real-time basis.

The article covers the first quarter of 2020. During that period, calls concerning disinfectants increased from 12,801in the same period for 2019 to 17,392 this year, an increase of over 35%. Calls concerning cleaning products increased from 25,021 to 28,158, an increase of slightly more than 7%. The categorization of products actually falls across regulatory jurisdictional lines, as the data groups bleaches with cleaning products and hand sanitizers with disinfectants. The former products, when used as disinfectants, are actually regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as pesticides, while hand sanitizers are actually over-the-counter drugs regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  

The detailed data provide some interesting insights into the nature of the exposures. In 2020 for disinfectants, over 80% of the exposure routes were ingestion. Even if most of the ingestions were by individuals under 19, that would still leave thousands of adults reporting exposure by ingestion.  This group increased by over 30% and represents the largest portion of the increase in exposures. Ingestion was also the leading route of exposure for cleaning products. The pattern is similar to disinfectants in that even if the majority of exposures of individuals under the age of twenty were by ingestion, it would still leave thousands of adults exposed through ingestion.  

The potential for misuse of these products was potentially aggravated on April 23 when President Trump, referencing the contact times for hard surface disinfectants, suggested that bleach might be either ingested or injected as a therapeutic for COVID-19. In fact, bleach is corrosive; skin or eye contact can cause severe burns. Any ingestion would cause severe mouth, throat and stomach burns. While there may not medical data, any injection would cause burns and potentially fatal systemic poisoning.

Reckitt Benckiser, a major international producer of disinfectants including Lysol®, immediately issued a statement warning against any such use of bleach. See Reckitt Benckiser Statement on Disinfectant Misuse.   To understand the severity of exposure to bleach, here is the warning statement from a typical Lysol® product containing bleach:

WARNING: Causes eye and skin irritation. Do not get in eyes, on skin or on clothing. Vapors may irritate. Use only in well-ventilated areas. Avoid prolonged breathing of vapors. Not recommended for use by persons with heart conditions or chronic respiratory problems such as asthma, emphysema or obstructive lung disease. Harmful if swallowed. For sensitive skin or prolonged use, wear rubber gloves. Wash after handling and before eating, drinking, chewing gum, using tobacco or using the toilet.

On the same day as the President’s pronouncement, EPA issued guidance on the safe use of disinfectants, including the specific advice to not apply a disinfectant to the human body nor ingest one. See EPA Guidance on Safe Disinfectant Use. In addition, numerous medical experts, including the current and immediate past Commissioners of the FDA, have immediately spoken out against such suggestions. Similar warnings have been issued by  The Clorox Company, The American Cleaning Institute, The American Chemistry Counciland the Center for Biocide Chemistries

In fact, under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), such use of a registered pesticide would not be authorized by the product label, and thus would be a violation of Federal law.  Violations of FIFRA are punishable by a penalty of up to $20,288 per offense.

The President also suggested using ultraviolet (UV) light as a therapeutic. UV light is grouped into three categories, denominated as UV-A, UV-B or UV-C, the latter presenting the greatest risk to humans. UV devices designed for sterilization of medical devices and instruments are regulated by the FDFA. UV light exposure, particularly UV-C, poses significant risks.  Overexposure to UV-C light can cause adverse health effects, including acute effects such as erythema (sunburn), photo conjunctivitis and photokeratitis (arc eye). The World Health Organization issued a warning against using UV-C light to disinfect the human body.

In the face of contradictory suggestions EPA continues to combat the sales of products making fraudulent disinfectant claims asserting the ability to control the SARS-CoV-2 virus. On April 23 EPA advised eight internet retail platforms that illegal products were being sold on their platforms. The platforms notified are Facebook, eBay, Alibaba, Shopify, Qoo10, JoyBuy.com, Wish.com and banggood.com.  See EPA Notifies 8 Retail Platforms of Illegal Disinfectant Sales. EPA urges the public to report illegal products at the EPA Violation Reporting Portal  

For more information about EPA’s action addressed to SARS-CoV-2 and disinfectants used to control the virus, see EPA Information for Registrants Regarding Disinfectants for the Control of SARS-CoV-2