Way Too Many Americans Have Gargled With Bleach

October 10, 2020

According to a recent survey, nearly 4 in 10 U.S. adults reported engaging in risky cleaning behaviors to prevent COVID-19, such as washing food with bleach, using household disinfectant products on their skin, or intentionally inhaling vapors from cleaning products.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report follows an earlier study describing an increase in calls to poison control centers about exposure to household cleaners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new report is based on an online survey of about 500 adults from across the United States who answered questions about their general knowledge of household cleanliness and safety and specific practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The researchers used a statistical technique called weighting so that their sample was representative of the U.S. population.

Most participants had some knowledge of how to clean safely. For example, most said that when using cleaning chemicals, rooms should be well ventilated and cleaning products should be kept out of the reach of children. Most also knew that they should wash their hands after using household cleaners.

However, there are dangerous gaps in their knowledge. For example, only about one-third say bleach should not be mixed with vinegar. As Live Science previously reported, the mixture produces chlorine, which can irritate the eyes, throat and nose and potentially cause breathing problems.

What’s more, 39 percent of participants said they had performed potentially harmful cleaning practices in the last month to prevent COVID-19. For example, 19 percent said they had used bleach to clean foods such as fruits and vegetables, which is not recommended because ingesting bleach is harmful. (As Live Science previously reported, people should use plain water to clean fruits and vegetables.)

In addition, 18 percent reported using household cleaners or disinfecting products on their hands or skin, 10 percent reported misting their bodies with cleaning or disinfecting sprays, 6 percent reported inhaling vapors from household cleaners or disinfectants, and 4 percent reported drinking or gargling diluted bleach solutions.

In the report, the authors wrote: “These practices carry a risk of serious tissue damage and corrosive injury and should be strictly avoided.” The report was published Friday (June 5) in the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The report found that those who engaged in these risky practices were more likely than those who did not to report at least one harmful health effect that they believed was the result of using cleaning agents – such as nose, skin or eye irritation, dizziness, headaches or breathing problems.

“COVID-19 prevention messages should continue to emphasize evidence-based safety practices such as frequent hand hygiene and frequent cleaning and disinfection of high-contact surfaces,” the authors say. But the messages should also emphasize avoiding high-risk practices such as “using bleach on food, applying household cleaning and sanitizing products to the skin, and inhaling or ingesting detergents and disinfectants,” they said.

Consumers should always read the instructions for cleaning products, wear protective gear and avoid mixing chemicals.