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Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Explained: What is being sprayed on migrants, and is it safe?

The chemical in the spray was a sodium hypochlorite solution. Sodium hypochlorite is commonly used as a bleaching agent, and also to sanitise swimming pools.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi | Published: March 31, 2020 1:10:37 am
Explained: What is being sprayed on migrants, is it safe? In Gujarat on Sunday. (Express Photo: Bhupendra Rana)

In several places on Sunday and Monday, migrant workers travelling to their home states, or their belongings, were sprayed with a disinfectant, apparently to sanitise them. Workers were sprayed in Bareily of Uttar Pradesh, and belongings of workers in Delhi.

The chemical in the spray was a sodium hypochlorite solution. Sodium hypochlorite is commonly used as a bleaching agent, and also to sanitise swimming pools.

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This chemical is also being used in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Punjab, for disinfecting buildings and solid surfaces in a bid to wash away any presence of novel coronavirus.

Is the chemical safe?

As a common bleaching agent, sodium hypochlorite is used for a variety of cleaning and disinfecting purposes. It releases chlorine, which is a disinfectant. The concentration of the chemical in the solution varies according to the purpose it is meant for. Large quantities of chlorine can be harmful. A normal household bleach usually is a 2-10% sodium hypochlorite solution. At a much lower 0.25-0.5%, this chemical is used to treat skin wounds like cuts or scrapes. An even weaker solution (0.05%) is sometimes used as a handwash.

So, what was the concentration used in the spray in various places?

In Delhi, officials have said a 1% sodium hypochlorite solution was used in the spray applied on migrant workers’ belongings. The concentration in other places, including those used on buildings or vehicles, is not very clear.

A 1% solution can cause damage to the skin of anyone who comes in contact with it. If it gets inside the body, it can cause serious harm to lungs. Sodium hypochlorite is corrosive, and is meant largely to clean hard surfaces. It is not recommended to be used on human beings, certainly not as a spray or shower. Even a 0.05% solution could be very harmful for the eyes.

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“It can cause itching or burning and is not approved to be used on humans,” said Dr Rajan Naringrekar, insecticide officer in Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. He says the chemical should never have been used on human beings like this. “In swimming pools, the quantity of sodium hypochlorite is very low, so that it does not harm the skin.”

Explained: What is being sprayed on migrants, is it safe? A screen grab shows healthcare workers, in protective suits, spray a solution on migrants before allowing them to enter the town of Bareilly, Monday, March 30, 2020. (PTI Photo)

In Pune, the chemical has been sprayed on buildings. Public health expert Dr Subhash Salunkhe, also chairman of the state technical committee to prevent communicable diseases, said even this could be harmful to people living inside. In a statement, he appealed to civic authorities to put an end to this fumigation.

Does the chemical get rid of the novel coronavirus?

The World Health Organization, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend homemade bleach solutions of about 2-10% concentration to clean hard surfaces to clear them of any presence of the novel coronavirus. A Michigan State University tutorial says that cleaning hard surfaces with this solution can disinfect them not just from novel coronavirus but also “help prevent flu, food born illnesses, and more”. However, it adds: “Always use bleach in a well-ventilated area and wear gloves when handling the product or solution.”

Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?

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