On Friday, US President Donald Trump backtracked from the remarks he made during a White House press briefing about injecting disinfectants into people to protect themselves from the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 and maintained that he made those comments “sarcastically”.
Following his remarks, Reckitt Benckiser, the British manufacturer of Dettol and Lysol issued a press release “under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route)”. It clarified that disinfectant and hygiene products “should only be used as intended and in line with usage guidelines”.
Following Trump’s comments, some reports suggested that health authorities in New York City reported an unusually high number of New Yorkers who had ingested bleach or other household cleaning agents. In a weekly update published by the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) on April 24, the agency said the daily number of calls to poison centers “increased sharply” at the beginning of March 2020 for exposures to cleaners and disinfectants.
What did President Trump say?
During the White House press briefing on Thursday Trump said, “Right. And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that. So, that, you’re going to have to use medical doctors with. But it sounds — it sounds interesting to me.”
“So we’ll see. But the whole concept of the light, the way it kills it in one minute, that’s — that’s pretty powerful,” he added. On Friday, however, Trump said, “I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen,” Trump said on Friday.
During the same press briefing Trump also made a reference to using ultraviolet light or “very powerful light”, “which you can do either through the skin or in some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that too.”
His comments were seen critically by even Fox News, a channel that is known to praise Trump. Steve Doocy, co-host of the show “Fox and Friends” issued a warning against administering disinfectants into the body. Doctors too, have appealed against using disinfectants in this fashion.
But why disinfectants?
Since the coronavirus outbreak started, people have been advised to wash their hands frequently and for at least 20 seconds using any kind of soap. Doing so breaks down the virus, keeping people safe and preventing the spread of infection. However, with this advice, the demand for products such as hand sanitisers (because of their high alcohol content), domestic cleaning agents also increased, due to their antimicrobial properties. In fact, in India and elsewhere disinfectants have been sprayed in public spaces as a mass sanitisation measure.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare says while the virus can easily survive on environmental surfaces, it can be “easily inactivated” by chemical disinfectants. The ministry has advised the use of such disinfectants to sanitise outdoor, public and indoor areas including office spaces.
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The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) too has similar guidelines in place and advises the use of chemical based disinfectants in non-healthcare facilities such as schools, institutions of higher education, offices, daycare centres, businesses and community centres.
So, how harmful can disinfectants be to the human body?
Ingesting or injecting disinfectants and other kinds of household cleaning agents is harmful since these agents can be potentially poisonous and can even lead to death.
The label for disinfectant and surface cleaner “Lizol”, for instance, which claims to kill 99.9 per cent germs cautions that the product is meant for “external use only”. It also says, “Keep out of reach of children. Causes eye and skin irritation. If in contact with skin or eyes, rinse cautiously with water. Remove contact lenses if present and continue to rinse. If irritation persists seek medical attention.”
Eighty per cent of Lizol is made up of benzalkonium chloride solution, which is a chemical with antimicrobial properties acting against pathogens such as bacteria, fungi and viruses. According to research published in /Applied and Environmental Microbiology/, this chemical is primarily a skin irritant and can also behave as a skin allergen. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPC) classifies benzalkonium chlorides (BACs) in toxicity category II by oral and inhalation routes and category III via the dermal route. BACs are also considered to be highly irritating for the eyes and the skin. Even so, some reports maintain that BACs may not have carcinogenic effects.
Savlon, another disinfectant that is described as an “antiseptic disinfectant liquid” is primarily made up of chlorhexidine gluconate and cetrimide solution. The Savlon label too cautions against keeping the product within reach for children and advises discontinuing its use “immediately” in case of any side effects. “Avoid contact with eyes”, the label says. A 2016 paper published in the /Annals of Cardiac Anaesthesia/ reports a case of acute lung injury, respiratory distress along with acute cardiopulmonary distress and renal failure when Savlon was used for surgical purposes to sterlise a cyst during its removal.
However, even beyond surgical use, oral exposure to disinfectants such as Savlon can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sore throat and abdominal pain. One report published in Europe PMC said inhaling Savlon and Dettol liquid together can even cause Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), which some severe COVID-19 patients also develop.
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Therefore, there is no evidence that inhaling, injecting, or orally administering disinfectants and other cleaning agents into the human body have any antimicrobial effects. On the contrary, by doing so the individual risks harming themselves and in some cases, the effects may be lethal.
What about ultraviolet light?
There is some degree of speculation that the virus may not survive on surfaces in higher temperatures, but there is currently no hard evidence to support this claim. In any case, what Trump suggested was with respect to the virus once it was already inside the human body and ultraviolet or any kind of light cannot get rid of the virus once a person has been infected with it.
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