Common disinfectants used against coronavirus can be harmful: experts

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to consume our lives, you may find yourself cleaning and disinfecting unlike ever before.

While all the mopping of floors and wiping of surfaces may help reduce the risk of catching the virus, experts say the chemical solutions being used could also put your health at risk.

“There are a lot of cleaning products or disinfecting products that have potential harms, especially if they’re used a lot or used improperly,” Jeffrey Siegel, a professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto, told Global News.

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A new peer-reviewed study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology this week found high levels of airborne hydrogen peroxide, a household chemical commonly used in cleaning agents and disinfectants, from washing just a square metre of the floor.

The experiment was carried out in Syracuse, N.Y., in a so-called “atmospheric chamber” – designed to mimic a residential room – and researchers monitored the air quality after repeatedly spraying the vinyl floor with a 0.88 per cent hydrogen peroxide-based disinfectant.

“The levels that we saw in the air were much higher than expected and sometimes they actually came close to what we consider the long-term exposure limit,” Tara Kahan, associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of the paper, told Global News.

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Often used as a substitute for bleach for cleaning purposes, hydrogen peroxide can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, skin and throat, according to the U.S. CDC.

However, the risk levels are elevated for occupational cleaners and janitors who are exposed to the chemicals for long periods of time, Kahan said.

“People who clean frequently are always at higher risk of various respiratory and heart issues because of exposure to cleaning solutions and the fumes from them,” she said.

“Now, with cleaning taking place so much more frequently and often without proper safety training … that risk is amplified and something we should be concerned about.”

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In May, Health Canada reported a 58 per cent increase in the number of accidental poisonings compared to before the novel coronavirus pandemic began.

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

While hydrogen peroxide is still considered less harmful than bleach or any other cleaning agents, experts say using soap and water is a better option. But if you’re using a cleaning or disinfection product, it is advisable to apply as little as possible.

“Cleaning is inherently a high-risk activity from a lot of dimensions, so you should be thinking about who’s cleaning, who’s present when cleaning is going on and what you’re doing to manage that risk,” Siegel said.

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How can you make cleaning safe?

  • Improve natural ventilation by opening a window or door.
  • Use the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.
  • Turn on the exhaust fan or range hood over the stove.
  • Use humidifiers, portable air purifiers or high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.
  • Isolate the area that you’re cleaning.
  • Wear proper protective gear.

With the onset of winter in Canada, there is growing concern about airborne transmission of the virus in closed indoor settings.

Kahan said her team of researchers is now following up and making measurements in real houses and apartments outside of a laboratory setting.

“We’re trying to understand right now what is it that determines how high the hydrogen peroxide levels will be after you use these cleaners and also, what can we do that’s practical and cheap to mitigate these risks and keep our air quality good inside of our houses.”

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© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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