Complaints of unintentional poisonings due to hand sanitizers, disinfectants and household cleaners increased since COVID-19

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Complaints of unintentional poisonings from hand sanitizers, disinfectants and household cleaners have increased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kathy Belton, associate director of the University of Alberta’s Injury Prevention Centre, said calls about poisonings by household products to Alberta’s Poison and Drug Information Service (PADIS) have increased by 73 per cent.

“While these products are essential for cleaning and preventing the spread of the virus, when they are used incorrectly, they can cause unintentional poisoning and serious injuries,” Belton said in a news release. “When they are left in common areas and within the reach of children, kids can accidentally ingest them or get some in their eyes.”

Calls related to hand sanitizer poisonings increased by 200 per cent over 2019 numbers, while calls for those aged between 13 and 19 years old increased eight times and there were five times as many calls for seniors over 60.

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One reason why exposure calls for hand sanitizer increased among teens could be because of its availability at homes, schools, fitness facilities and shopping malls, said Mark Yarema, medical director of PADIS. As well, he added teens may be experimenting with sanitizer to get high, while mistakes could also be made because of packaging.

“Hand sanitizer in particular has been packaged in beer cans and wine bottles,” Belton said. “If you think about it, if there’s a beer can with hand sanitizer in it, an unsuspecting inebriated person could mistake it for a real beer.”

Some hand sanitizers may also be brightly packaged and have fruit and other foods on the labels, along with smells that could make it attractive to young children.

“Fortunately, PADIS has not seen any serious effects or outcomes with these exposures,” Yarema said.

Symptoms from ingesting hand sanitizer can include lower blood sugar, slow heart rate and slow breathing, and a poisoned child may appear drunk, with an unsteady walk, slurred speech, nausea and vomiting, and drowsiness.

Symptoms of poisonings from cleaning products can vary, depending on the product and whether it was swallowed, inhaled or splashed in the eyes or on the skin.

Red watery eyes, mouth pain, drooling, choking, gagging, difficulty breathing, vomiting, and stomach pain could all be signs of poisoning.

According to the 2020 Evidence Summary on the Prevention of Poisoning in Canada, released by the Injury Prevention Centre last summer, nearly 4,500 Canadians die from unintended poisonings each year.

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These poisonings are responsible for more deaths than vehicle collisions in Canada.

“The public sees child-resistant lids and other manufacturing solutions for products and they think that the poisoning issue has been solved,” Belton said. “But it really hasn’t.

“These are toxic chemicals and they should be treated with respect.”

Tips to prevent poisonings include supervising children under 12 when they’re using hand sanitizer, read labels and follow the instructions, store sanitizers and cleaning products out of sight and reach of children, keep products in original containers, wear gloves when cleaning and don’t mix cleaning products.

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