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War on Covid-19 increases disinfectant accidents in homes

A Cape-Town based poison centre says it has seen a spike in accidents involving household disinfectants such as hand sanitisers.
A Cape-Town based poison centre says it has seen a spike in accidents involving household disinfectants such as hand sanitisers.
Image: Brigham Young University

Fighting Covid-19 may be increasing accidental poisoning in homes with one of the country’s poison centres reporting a steep spike in calls related to disinfectant exposure.

The Poison Information Helpline of the Western Cape says as families have started buying more household disinfectants, including hand sanitisers, to fight the pandemic, cases of unintentional exposure have been increasing too, particularly in children under the age of five. According to the centre, over the past year hand sanitiser exposures increased exponentially from only six cases in 2019 to 160 in 2020 — more than a 26-fold increase. The centre says it has also seen a surge in ingestion of eucalyptus oil — one of the essential oils that have gained popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even though its efficacy in preventing Covid-19 has not been proven, eucalyptus oil which has antiviral properties, has been widely used by many who believe that its vapours offer protection against viral infections and assist in breathing.

This essential oil has long been known to have anti-inflammatory, bronchodilator and antiviral properties. Arina du Plessis, a poison information specialist from the Tygerberg Poisons Information Centre said the number of eucalyptus oil ingestions doubled from 21 in 2019 to 43 in 2020.

“Children with a history of exposure to any amount of eucalyptus oil should be assessed at a medical facility.” Du Plessis said as little as 1ml ingestion of eucalyptus oil can cause seizures and central nervous system depression, usually within 30 minutes after exposure. “Parents and caregivers should be aware of the risks involved in exposure to essential oils. Always put the oils away every time you use them and store them in a place that a young child cannot reach,” she said.

While the poison centre had previously received reports about accidents involving younger children, Du Plessis said during the Covid-19 pandemic an increase in accidents involving older children and adults was being seen. 

Even though sanitisers are a convenient alternative, poison experts warn that it’s important to use sanitisers properly and avoid ingesting them. With most sanitisers having up to 70% of alcohol, ingesting even a small amount can cause alcohol poisoning in children.

The poison centre recommends that users rub hand sanitisers all over their hands, “making sure to get it between the fingers and on the back of the hands”, and to rather wash their hands with soap and water if visibly dirty and greasy.


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