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Disinfectants Can Kill the Coronavirus, but Can Also Harm Health

Some Products May Cause Asthma, Skin Burns and Eye Damage

Person with green gloves spraying a cleaning solution on a bathroom handle
Use disinfectants as directed and choose products with safer active ingredients to avoid health impacts.

06/30/2020
By Karen Angelo

With the coronavirus pandemic persisting, people may be tempted to increase the use of disinfectants to help stem the spread of the virus. But these products contain Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered pesticides that can cause harm, especially if not used as directed. 

The results of a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that a third of respondents have used disinfectants in risky ways: They have washed food with bleach, applied household cleaning or disinfectant products to bare skin and intentionally inhaled or ingested the cleaners. 

“Disinfectants, by design, kill living organisms, so in order to keep you and your family safe, you need to follow label directions,” says Lab Director Jason Marshall '95 '01 '08 of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at UMass Lowell. “Even when using cleaning and disinfecting products as directed, you need to be careful. Some disinfectants contain quaternary ammonium compounds, which can trigger or cause asthma. Bleach can cause respiratory, skin and eye irritation.” 

The good news is that some disinfectants on the EPA’s list for use against the novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, include safer active ingredients. Marshall says those disinfectants include hydrogen peroxide, alcohol (isopropyl alcohol or ethanol), citric acid and lactic acid. 

However, people still need to use caution when using these disinfectants, Marshall says. 

“Even with products that contain safer ingredients, you still need to follow directions carefully and avoid using these products near children,” he says. 

New Research on Safer Alternatives 

Assoc. Prof. Nancy Goodyear of the Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences Department is working with TURI Lab staff to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of chemical and technology alternatives offered by vendors as coronavirus disinfection options. 

Using a surrogate virus for SARS-CoV-2, the research team will evaluate the effectiveness of steam cleaning, hypochlorous acid, ultraviolet light, electrostatic sprayers and fogging chemicals. 

“We are very interested in studying whether these other methods do kill the coronavirus,” says Goodyear, who oversees the microbiology lab at TURI’s facility in the Boott Mills building in downtown Lowell. “If these products work, then consumers and businesses would have more options to consider.” 

Guidance for Consumers and Businesses 

In a recent webinar to help businesses reopen, TURI Laboratory Specialist Alicia McCarthy ’15 ’17 said it’s important to document how often you’re cleaning and disinfecting each area and surface. 

“As we reopened our lab, we took into consideration our instruments, each lab space and usage and came up with a cleaning and disinfecting plan,” says McCarthy. “Each business has its own unique circumstances, so you need to select the right products and develop a process that works for you.” 

When selecting which products to use, another important consideration is dwell time — the amount of time that a disinfectant needs to sit on a surface in order to work. 

“The last thing you want to do is waste money and time by spraying and immediately wiping surfaces and not killing the virus,” says McCarthy. “Training staff and vendors is another important component of an effective disinfecting plan.” 

TURI recently issued general guidance for households and businesses on how to safely clean and disinfect: 

  • Clean before you disinfect. A disinfectant cannot reach the organisms if they are covered with dirt. So clean first, and then disinfect. 
  • Never mix cleaning and disinfecting chemicals together. Mixing chemicals can cause dangerous reactions. For example, if bleach and ammonia are mixed, they produce toxic gases that can be lethal. 
  • Wear rubber gloves and eye protection when using toxic disinfectants. Open windows and turn on exhaust fans to dissipate the toxic fumes. Keep these products away from children. 
  • Dilute bleach with water before using. Bleach is highly toxic. If you do choose to use bleach, be sure to dilute it with water, per the directions on the label, before using. 
  • Don't overuse disinfectants. Although we are in a crisis with COVID-19, remember that disinfecting kills all microorganisms, good and bad. Overuse can contribute to unintended consequences, such as causing health issues and promoting the growth of antibiotic-resistant organisms.