Poisonings by Disinfectants Up Amid Covid-19 Cleaning

Among the lessons: Don’t mix bleach & vinegar, and keep hand sanitizer away from children.

Robert Roy Britt
3 min readApr 20, 2020


After apparently downing some alcohol-based hand sanitizer recently, a pre-school-aged girl was found unresponsive at her home. She vomited on the way to the emergency room, where her blood-alcohol level was found to be 273 mg/dL, well above the 80 mg/dL that typically defines drunk driving. She was discharged and home 48 hours later after a stay in intensive care.

Meanwhile, an adult woman had heard she should clean vegetables before eating them. She filled the sink with bleach, vinegar and hot water and put the produce in to soak. She ended up in the ER after wheezing, coughing and finding it difficult to breathe. Bleach and vinegar, when mixed, produce chlorine gas, which when inhaled even in small amounts can cause these symptoms. She was given oxygen and medication and discharged a few hours later.

These are just two of many such cases highlighted in a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that finds chemical exposures related to cleaning products and disinfectants and resulting in health problems surged in March as Americans were urged to sanitize hands and frequently-touched surfaces in an effort to avoid the coronavirus.

Calls to 55 poison centers around the country for exposures related to cleaners and disinfectants spiked 20.4% for the first three months of this year compared to last year, with most of the increase occurring in March, the CDC found. (This year’s total was 16.4% above the 2018 year-to-date figure.)

Daily exposures reported to U.S. poison centers (the spike in January involved unintentional exposure at a school):

Graphic: CDC

Increases were seen in all age groups, with children 5 and under being the most affected age group in both years. Among cleaning fluids, bleach was responsible for the largest chunk of the increase. The largest increase by type of exposure was inhalation.

While the research does not prove the increase is related to Covid-19, the researchers presume it is. “To reduce improper use and prevent unnecessary chemical exposures, users should always read and follow directions on the label, only use water at room temperature for dilution (unless stated otherwise on the label), avoid mixing chemical products, wear eye and skin protection, ensure adequate ventilation, and store chemicals out of the reach of children,” the researchers advise.

The CDC has an extensive how-to on cleaning and disinfecting your home, focusing on often-touched surfaces like doorknobs and handles, countertops and tables and including product recommendations. Meanwhile, Elemental has a guide that offers practical tips on applying the advice.



Robert Roy Britt

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB