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Accidental poisonings from cleaning supplies on the rise during COVID-19 outbreak

Coronavirus outbreak: Accidental poisonings from cleaning supplies on the rise
WATCH: Coronavirus outbreak: Accidental poisonings from cleaning supplies on the rise

Health Canada says there has been a clear jump in the number of accidental poisonings from household cleaners since the novel coronavirus pandemic began.

According to the agency, February and March combined had a 58 per cent increase in the number of reported exposures to cleaning products and disinfectants compared to the same months in 2019.

These include poisonings by exposure to bleaches, disinfectants, hand sanitizers, chlorine and chloramine gases. The most common reports involve bleach, which made up 38 per cent of calls to poison centres in March.

READ MORE: Poison control calls spike after Trump talks of disinfectant to fight coronavirus

While it’s difficult to prove a direct link, Health Canada believes the spike is due to increased exposure to these products in the home because people are stockpiling items during the pandemic and cleaning more due to fear of spreading COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

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The agency says that people spending more time at home due to the pandemic is also a considerable factor.

There has been a similar spike in accidental poisonings seen in the U.S., according to a recent report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Accidental poisonings from cleaning supplies, disinfectants rising during pandemic
Accidental poisonings from cleaning supplies, disinfectants rising during pandemic

Researchers at the CDC compared the number of calls about poisonings caused by disinfectants (like hand sanitizer) and cleaning supplies (like bleach) from January to March in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

In 2020, U.S. poison control centres received 20.4 per cent more calls compared to 2019 and 16.4 per cent more calls compared to 2018.

The majority of calls in 2020 were about poisonings in children five years old and younger — roughly 35 per cent involved cleaners and nearly 47 per cent were about disinfectants.

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READ MORE: Calls about exposure to household cleaners up 60% in B.C.

“The timing of these reported exposures corresponded to increased media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports of consumer shortages of cleaning and disinfection products and the beginning of some local and state stay-at-home orders,” the authors wrote.

For Dr. Dina Kulik, founder and medical director at Kidcrew Medical in Toronto, accidental poisoning is a major cause for concern — especially when children are around.

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“People are using more alcohol, more peroxide, more bleach products and tons of other commercially available products” in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kulik previously told Global News.

Now more than ever, these products need to be used and stored carefully and out of reach.

B.C. health officials investigating excess deaths during pandemic
B.C. health officials investigating excess deaths during pandemic

“People are leaving the products out in their kitchens or their bathrooms because they’re using it so much, but this leaves others at risk,” she said.

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“(They) should absolutely be kept far away from kids.”

The toxic chemicals that make up many disinfectants and cleaners can have severe adverse effects if they’re used improperly. In some situations, they can even cause death.

READ MORE: People are poisoning themselves with cleaning supplies as coronavirus spreads — study

“Using hand sanitizer is one thing; ingesting it is another,” Kulik said. “Using bleach on surfaces is one thing; touching it on your skin and breathing it in is another.”

Below, Kulik offers some tips for keeping you and your family safe.

Don’t DIY

“I’ve seen a lot of people mixing things, following … instructional videos,” Kulik said. “That could be very dangerous.”

Unless you have a scientific background, Kulik fears people won’t know the chemical reactions they’re creating — or the possible harmful impacts of those chemicals if the product is inhaled, ingested or touches the skin.

Different chemicals can “burn skin, hurt your eyes, could be lethal (if ingested), could explode,” Kulik said.

READ MORE: How effective are household cleaners in fighting coronavirus?

Label everything

It’s common for people to dilute a chemical like bleach with water, mixing the solution in a new, unlabelled spray bottle.

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According to Kulik, this could be a recipe for disaster.
“A child may look [at it] and think ‘Oh, this is fun’ and spray it onto their face or their eyes,” Kulik said. “We need to be really careful … instead of leaving things out, lock them away.”

Also, include a label so that even adults don’t get confused.

“Make sure you write (what it is) in big, huge letters on the bottle. Don’t leave things nondescript,” said Kulik.

Poisoning symptoms

There are some symptoms that can indicate poisoning that parents should watch for.

“It depends on what body part (the poison) has touched,” Kulik said.

Red, watery, irritated eyes, mouth pain, drooling, choking, gagging, difficulty breathing, vomiting and stomach pain can all indicate an accidental poisoning.

READ MORE: How are Canada’s biggest airlines cleaning planes amid coronavirus outbreak?

If symptoms are present, Kulik says you should first call 911 and then poison control.

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“Don’t induce vomiting, don’t give them anything to eat or drink,” Kulik said. “Wait until you talk to (a professional) before doing anything.”

Teaching moment

The novel coronavirus outbreak presents a good opportunity to teach your children about viruses, cleaning products and safety.

“(Tell them) why you’re cleaning, why you need to wash your hands so often, why you can’t go outside,” Kulik said.

“Tell them we’re cleaning our surfaces so we don’t pass the bug on and get other people sick.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca