Disinfection dangers: How to avoid viruses without exposing yourself to toxics

COVID-19 has all of us cleaning more—but the products designed to kill viruses and bacteria can have dangerous health impacts. Here's how to scrub safely.

The coronavirus has changed just about every routine in our lives, cleaning and disinfecting now among them.


The rational fear of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) spread has led to an enormous growth in the creation and use of a multitude of products that we use to wipe, spray, and fog, particularly where we eat, sleep, commute, shop and study.

But in the U.S., the history of the use of toxic chemicals has often been followed years later with public health agencies realizing that potential adverse effects on health were downplayed as everyone focused on supposed benefits. This approach has often led to massive overuse of different classes of chemicals, which is the case now with cleaning and disinfecting chemicals. We are faced with a pandemic that is causing unprecedented, exponential use of cleaning and disinfection products, and we already are finding evidence this is leading to downstream health issues in humans and wildlife.

From oven cleaners, air fresheners, toilet bowl cleaners, laundry detergent and softeners, to chemical wipes and mildew sprays, the drive to make your home, office buildings, schools and shopping areas sparkling clean and eliminate germs has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Cleaning products and disinfectants are among the most toxic products sold today.

In fact, because of their high toxicity, household cleaning products and disinfectants are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission under the 1960 Federal Hazardous Substances Labeling Act.

However, this 60-year-old law for determining poison risk is grossly outdated. Many newer products are particularly dangerous to have around children, whose increased sensitivity to their toxic effects was not taken into account in the 1960 law. Every day more than 300 children are treated for poisoning from these products in emergency departments across the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with, on average, two children dying. In fact, accidental poisonings from cleaners and disinfectants have increased by 20 percent in the first quarter of 2020 as compared to rates from 2018 and 2019, according to one CDC report. Researchers believe the increase coincides with stay-at-home orders and guidelines to clean hands and surfaces to prevent COVID-19 infection.

Disinfecting versus cleaning

One of the most important ways to reduce exposure to some of the strongest, more toxic chemicals is to first decide how aggressively you need to clean vs. disinfect. For example, cleaning refers to the removal of dirt and germs from surfaces, but does not necessarily kill germs. However, removing germs lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection (the amount of virus you are exposed to matters).

Removal of germs, the vast majority of which cause no harm to human health, can be done with products that are a lot less harmful to the human body than stronger chemicals used to remove infectious bacteria and viruses. For simple cleaning, we can use safe, effective cleaners such as bar and liquid soap made without fragrance, coloring and preservative, and also do not contain antibacterial chemicals that are not necessary for basic cleaning.

Disinfecting, on the other hand, refers to using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces, but this involves using products with much stronger, and potentially lethal, chemicals. Disinfectants are chemicals that can have serious effects on human health that may become apparent after short-term as well as long-term use. Bleach is one example, where this strong disinfecting chemical can cause short-term health issues like cough (bronchospasm), shortness of breath, and can even trigger an asthma attack. Long-term use may increase risk of thyroid gland dysfunction and other endocrine disorders if protection for skin contact, inhalation, and ventilation of the use area are not managed properly.

We provide many "do-it-yourself" recipes for making safe cleaning solutions, and also discuss disinfectants in our newly released consumer guidebook, Non-Toxic: Guide to Living Healthy in a Chemical World. The reality is that in the U.S., manufacturers of cleaning products and disinfectants are not required to list the full ingredient panel of their products, with the exception of products with older known hazardous ingredients. Cleaning products producers are also not responsible for supplying information about any testing or toxicity findings for the products they create, because in the U.S., they are protected as a trade secret. In the event of an accidental poisoning, even poison control centers are unable to access information about the ingredient details of the product ingested. While industries argue that protecting their profits from products by keeping ingredients secret is essential, not informing consumers about chemicals in these products that have been shown to cause harm is unacceptable.

Health effects from cleaning products 

Researchers have shown health effects in both animal and human studies for several classes of cleaning ingredient chemicals. Phthalates, a class of chemicals added for fragrance or 'perfume', are intended to increase the shelf life of the product's odor. Research shows that phthalate exposure during pregnancy has been associated with developmental abnormalities in both animal and human studies.

Antibacterial chemicals, such as triclosan, are registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as pesticides. Chemicals such as triclosan are readily absorbed through human skin and are often detected in blood. In fact, 75 percent of urine samples and 97 percent of breast milk samples in the United States and Sweden were found to include triclosan, which is linked to hormone disruption and immune system impacts. After only one shower using a body wash containing triclosan, researchers found blood levels of triclosan immediately increased.

Parabens and quaternary ammonium compounds (a potent class of chemicals used in cleaning and disinfection, commonly known as quats or QACs) are among other classes of chemical additives raising concern, especially now with the coronavirus. These unregulated chemicals may pose serious short and long-term health risks, and they are particularly dangerous for fetuses and should be avoided by pregnant women.

Cleaning and disinfectant products are now being used in greater quantities (using 'foggers'), over a wider variety of surfaces, and are used among workers and lay people (teachers, administrators), who may not have experience using products containing hazardous chemicals. Perhaps of greatest concern is the now pervasive use of many powerful disinfectant chemicals in environments such as schools and daycares where the evidence for safety has yet to be fully elucidated, and where vulnerable students with history of asthma, or vaping, may experience increased risk for lung injury from repetitive, long-term exposure, thus placing them at increased risk of dying from COVID-19.

General rules for ‘safe cleaning’

The 'less is more approach' is always best. Buy and use fewer products. Dispense with the use of fabric softener, dryer sheets, and air fresheners and any scented product. This is the first step to eliminate hundreds of undisclosed chemicals that may be harmful to your health. Clearly, you cannot rely on statements on product labels to assess the safety of these products, since they are essentially unregulated. Look for products with the fewest number of ingredients, and with most ingredients you can recognize.

In general, it's wise to avoid products that contain ammonia, chlorine bleach, quaternary ammonium or "quats", and non-chlorine bleach substitutes such as oxygen bleach, which are corrosive and irritating to skin. Avoid use of air fresheners, carpet powders, cleaning products with bleach and other lung irritants, and products containing fragrance or perfume. Limonene and other citrus fragrances are often added to cleaning products and should be avoided because of their ability to form formaldehyde with ozone in the air. Also, look for companies that are reputable for not only having ingredients safe for the planet (no microbeads or nanoparticles used for instance), but also use ingredients that do not pose a hazard for human health. Look up your cleaning products on the internet and consult vetted resources, such as the Environmental Working Group's list for safe cleaning products as well as the CDC and EPA lists for effective disinfectant products.

Bottom line

Cleaning products in the U.S. are under minimal regulatory oversight and contain chemicals known to cause many health issues. Avoid buying harmful cleaning products to begin with, purchase products checked on reliable online sources, or make your own cleaners with basic, inexpensive natural ingredients. Open windows to clean out odors, spot clean spills and messes at the source, and throw in some old fashioned elbow grease instead of relying on a toxic chemical fix. And finally, do not try to mask odors with air fresheners that release toxic chemicals into the air you breathe in your home and at work. As we move into this 'brave new world' with COVID-19, be judicious with using disinfectant chemicals over the use of cleaning agents.

Dr. Aly Cohen is a board certified rheumatologist, integrative medicine, and environmental health expert, and creator of the environmental health and wellness platform, TheSmartHuman.com, where she shares information, tips, and resources on a variety of health and disease prevention topics, as well as practical ways to help reduce harmful environmental exposures.

Frederick vom Saal is professor of neuro- and reproductive biology, whose decades of research is largely responsible for the removal of the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA) from plastic baby bottles in the U.S. in 2012.

Dr. Cohen and vom Saal's new guidebook, in the Dr. Weil's Healthy Living Guides series, Non-Toxic: Guide to Living Healthy in a Chemical World, published by Oxford University Press is available now, in stores and online.

Their views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo: Cleaning and disinfection at Des Moines Public Schools. (Credit: Phil Roeder/flickr)

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