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We Need to Talk: The Overuse and Misuse of Disinfectants

We Need to Talk: The Overuse and Misuse of Disinfectants

Alex Scranton
Director of Science
and Research

We are incredibly concerned about the premature opening of our communities — including our schools — without the leadership or the funding to ensure this is done safely and consistently to protect the health and livelihood of people no matter where they live, who they are, or how they work. As cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. continue to rise, there is absolutely no doubt we need to be diligent as a nation — as a world — to stop the spread of this virus in its tracks. There are many important and vital conversations around keeping our homes and communities safe — about how-to and when-to reopen safely — and part of this discussion needs to include toxic chemicals, particularly in regards to the overuse and misuse of disinfectants.

Now more than ever, many of us rely on disinfectants to keep us safe. Powerful marketing tells us, if it’s strong enough – if we spray enough – it’s going to keep us healthy. Unfortunately, the reality is that there is tremendous uncertainty in how useful a role disinfectants are really playing in the COVID pandemic. We really do not know how much risk is posed by touching contaminated surfaces. We are getting a better idea, however, of the risks posed by overdoing the disinfecting. A May 2020 survey of US adults found that 60% reported more frequent cleaning or disinfecting in their homes since the pandemic began.[1] And, 25% of adults reported experiencing an adverse health effect from the use of cleaners or disinfectants. That’s 1 in 4 people who have been harmed by their cleaners in recent months! Evidence of harm from disinfecting has also shown up in poison control call data. Calls to Poison Control Centers about exposures to bleach, disinfectants and hand sanitizers skyrocketed in the U.S. beginning in March and have stayed high ever since.[2]

And this is just the evidence of the short-term harms of disinfectant exposures; long-term health concerns linked to quat exposure include everything from respiratory to reproductive harm.[3] What will take longer to figure out is whether we will see a dramatic increase in new cases of asthma – particularly in people who are cleaning for a living. Will there be an increase in rates of infertility or birth defects as a result of increased exposures to quats? Will there be higher rates of infections to antibiotic resistant bacteria – created in homes and businesses from the overuse of disinfectants. Research is already connecting chronic illness — included those linked to exposures from toxic chemicals — with increased risk of both contracting, and being harmed by, coronavirus. Is the overuse of disinfectants adding to the problem instead of solving it? We have to wait to find out.

Are there any payoffs to the increased use of disinfectants? Rapidly declining rates of COVID?  Unfortunately, no. There is surprisingly little data available showing that disinfecting is successfully preventing the spread of COVID.

Don’t get me wrong – regular cleaning (and even some occasional careful disinfecting) is a good thing to do for our health. But it is not the silver bullet that most product marketing leads us to believe. It has to be done with caution, often with gloves and eye protection, always with good ventilation, and with the safest disinfecting chemicals we have available. We must also wash our hands, continue to social distance (stay homes as much as you can), and wear a mask – all of these things TOGETHER will help get this pandemic under control and save lives.

Helpful Resources

Additional resources and references on safer cleaning and disinfecting during the times of COVID-19:

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[1] Gharpure R, Hunter CM, Schnall AH, et al. Knowledge and Practices Regarding Safe Household Cleaning and Disinfection for COVID-19 Prevention – United States, May 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69(23):705-709. Published 2020 Jun 12. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6923e2

[2] American Association of Poison Control Centers.  National Poison Data System (NPDS) Bulletin COVID-19.  Available at https://aapcc.org/page-1075510

[3] https://www.womensvoices.org/safe-cleaning-products/disinfectant-overkill-focus-on-quats/

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