Household Cleaning Products Can Be Dangerous to Kids (and Here’s How to Use Them Safely)

Play it safe and avoid accidental poisonings
Cleaning supplies in a bucket

The 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic has people spraying, scrubbing and washing more than usual to keep germs away.

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But all that cleaning is having some unintended effects: Poison control centers have seen a 20% jump in calls related to household cleaners and disinfectants such as bleach, nonalcohol disinfectants and hand sanitizers. And many of those calls involved children under the age of 5 getting ahold of these products.

While they’re helpful in ridding our homes of dangerous germs, cleaners and disinfectants need to be used carefully – especially in households with children. They contain ingredients that can irritate your skin, eyes, nose and throat. They can also be poisonous if they’re swallowed, even in small doses.

Swallowing cleaning products can result in confusion, nausea, vomiting, breathing problems and other symptoms, depending on what was ingested, says Purva Grover, MD, Medical Director of Cleveland Clinic Children’s Pediatric Emergency Departments.

And children are more susceptible to these dangers.

“It doesn’t take much to make a child sick,” says pediatrician Eva Love, MD. “Their small body size and fast metabolism increase their risk of developing significant toxicity from these products.”

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If a child ingests any household cleaning product, call 1-800-222-1222 to connect to your local poison control center.

“Do not wait for a child to look or act sick,” Dr. Love says. “Nurses, pharmacists and toxicologist are available to quickly answer your questions and tell you what to do next.”

Hand sanitizer: a hidden risk

Parents probably don’t think of hand sanitizer as being particularly dangerous. After all, it’s nearly everywhere nowadays. But most hand sanitizers contain at least 60% alcohol – a stronger concentration than is found in most liquors. If kids ingest even small amounts of hand sanitizer, they could experience alcohol poisoning.

It’s an easy target for kids because it’s so readily available, and it often comes in small, easy-to-open bottles.

“Hand sanitizer is sometimes packaged in a way that is very appealing to children,” Dr. Love adds. “Many of these products come in bright colors, contain eye-catching glitter or smell enticing to children.”

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For safety purposes, kids should only use hand sanitizer under supervision. An adult should squeeze a dime-sized drop into their hands and watch them rub it in until their hands are dry.

Clean + disinfect with care

You should never swallow or inhale any household cleaning or disinfecting products. Avoid getting them in your eyes or on your skin, too.

Here are some tips to poison-proof your home and prevent accidents from happening:

  • Only use them as directed. Keep cleaners and disinfectants in their original containers with the label. It’s important to read and follow the directions for safe and effective use. Some products, including household bleach, need to be diluted. It’s also important not to use them on objects or surfaces they aren’t intended for.
  • Use one at a time. Don’t create a cocktail of chemicals in an attempt to really get something clean. Mixing bleach with vinegar or ammonia can produce a poisonous gas.
  • Wear protection. Bleach, ammonia and other hard-surface cleaners can irritate your skin, eyes and throat. Use disposable gloves (or reusable ones that you only wear for cleaning) and make sure the area you’re cleaning has good ventilation. Keep kids out of the room while you’re cleaning and for several minutes after.
  • Store chemicals up and away. If you have kids or pets, never leave a bottle open or unattended. “Many ingestions occur when caregivers are distracted for a moment on their phone or at the door,” Dr. Love says. Close them up after use and store on high shelves, or locked in a cabinet. Also properly store or dispose of rags, sponges or paper towels that you use to clean.
  • Treat “safer” cleaners the same. If you’re using a homemade cleaner or one that’s marketed as “green,” that doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind. Use them with care, as you would any other cleaner. The EPA has a list of cleaners that contain ingredients that are safer for human health and the environment.

If you or someone in your household has a dangerous exposure to a cleaner or disinfectant, call poison control at 1-800-222-1222.

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