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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

Businesses, schools and other public places are doing everything they can to disinfect their spaces to reduce the risk of spreading the COVID-19 respiratory illness. However, the unintended consequence from some anti-virus regimens such as chemical foggers and disinfectants could expose workers, students, and consumers to chemicals that are largely untested for human health, warns Claims Journal.

This trend is alarming health and environmental safety experts. Dr. Claudia Miller, an immunologist, allergist and co-author of Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes, told Claims Journal that this is a hazardous proposition. Dr. Miller explained that “cleaners tend to go in with hugely toxic chemicals. We’re creating another problem for a whole group of people, and I’m not sure we’re actually controlling infections.”

Companies responsible for cleaning spaces to protect humans from the coronavirus are using disinfecting agents from the EPA-developed List N, a list of hundreds of products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to kill the coronavirus.  

The problem is that while those chemicals have passed tests showing they are effective at killing the pathogen, the long-term health effects on humans are unknown. Scientist Lesliam Quiros-Alcala of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health pointed out that even though the EPA has approved these chemicals to kill the coronavirus, “this doesn’t mean that they have been approved because they’re considered safe with regard to human health.”

Public Health Concerns with Chemicals Used to Kill the Coronavirus

The hundreds of chemicals in use raises a public health concern. It is possible that breathing in these chemicals or touching areas that have been sanitized by fogging and other equipment could cause long-term health problems that have not yet been fully studied. Some studies, including some on rodents, have raised concerns that using these chemicals could increase the risk of neurological or dermatological problems.

Like other harmful substances, the amount of exposure is likely to have an effect on the potential risks. Some cleaning companies use electrostatic sprayers with cleaning and disinfectants that can cover a large area in a short time. Facilities with poor ventilation and buildings that use recirculated air could also put people at risk of increased exposure to the chemicals.

Ultraviolet Light: A Safer Alternative to Chemical Products

A potential alternative to using chemicals is using ultraviolet light to kill the pathogen. While its effectiveness is still being studied, ultraviolet lights that are used to illuminate unoccupied spaces can kill the virus after 15 to 30 minutes exposure to the light.

This alternative to chemical disinfectants is currently being used in hospitals and some hotels. When deciding on a decontamination company, it is important to research the product or chemicals that the company uses and if the chemicals are registered with the EPA.

More Research Needs to Be Done on the Chemicals That Kill the Coronavirus

It is also essential to determine how long the chemical will take to kill the virus on porous and nonporous surfaces if the methods follow the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) guidelines. But we need to research all known information regarding the health effects of those disinfectants.

The CDC currently recommends cleaning contaminated surfaces with liquid disinfectants to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Proper ventilation and carefully following the manufacturer’s recommendations are important, as is avoiding mixing chemical cleaners, which can be combustible.

In addition, bleach is a common household item that can be effective at killing the coronavirus. The advantage to bleach is that the surface can be subsequently cleaned with soap and water to prevent exposure of bleach to humans.