President Donald Trump explained away his speculation about injecting disinfectant as a possible cure for the coronavirus last week as a joke to rile up reporters. But at least one poison control center is still dealing with the fallout, eight days later.
The National Capital Poison Center in Washington, D.C., has spent days fielding calls with a version of the same question: The president said I could use disinfectant to protect myself against COVID-19. Should I?
“We automatically tell them, ‘This is not something that you should do. This is not something that you should consider doing,’” said Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicologist and the co-medical director of the National Capital Poison Center. “And some of the responses that we get back are, ‘Well, the president said we should be doing it. The president said it was safe.’”
Since Trump’s press conference April 23, the center has received at least 33 calls about disinfectant exposures — and at least 12 from people who wanted information about them. Almost all of the latter group mentioned that press conference.
Initially, they wanted to simply know whether they should consume disinfectant. (No.) But those questions gradually shifted. People started to ask: What’s the best way to ingest disinfectant? Should I bathe in bleach? How can I get my loved ones to drink it? (Again, don’t drink disinfectant, including bleach. Only bathe in bleach if your medical doctor has recommended it.)
Most of these callers had not consumed any disinfectant and just wanted more information. But one person called after drinking a disinfectant and told the center they’d done so based on the president’s comments, Johnson-Arbor said. That person was advised to go to the hospital.
Another person, who bathed in disinfectant, also said they did it because of Trump. The National Capital Poison Center was able to manage their case without sending them to a hospital.
Technically, Trump didn’t recommend drinking disinfectant to fight the coronavirus, or even say that such a treatment would work. He was riffing on comments by William Bryan, an acting undersecretary for science at the Department of Homeland Security, who spoke earlier about how disinfectant and bleach can impact the coronavirus.
“And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute,” Trump said. “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.”
Within days of the president’s remarks, poison control centers and government agencies reported a spike in calls from people who wanted to know more about consuming disinfectant. More than 100 people called the Maryland Emergency Management Agency about consuming disinfectant, ABC News reported Friday. On Saturday, the Illinois Department of Public Health director also reported a recent “significant increase in calls.”
Last Thursday, the day of Trump’s press conference, New York City’s poison control center received 32 calls from people inquiring about bleach and disinfectant exposures. The next day, it got 39 similar calls.
Two Georgia men drank cleaning products over the weekend in attempts to fight the coronavirus, said Gaylord Lopez, the director of the Georgia Poison Center, though it’s unclear if they were inspired by Trump. A state health official also said that the Kansas Poison Control Center had reported a more than 40 percent spike in disinfectant cases over the weekend, the Wichita Eagle reported.
One man even “drank a product because of the advice he’d received,” the official said, but he didn’t identify where, exactly, the man got that advice.
Still, even before Trump’s comments, calls to poison controls across the country had spiked sharply in recent weeks. Centers reported dealing with more than 5,000 bleach-related cases in April 2020 — compared to just under 2,800 cases over the same period last year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. That’s potentially because people are now home all the time and cleaning more thoroughly, due to the pandemic, Johnson-Arbor said.
People are also petrified and looking for ways to stay safe from COVID-19. Recently, the Georgia Poison Center has had cases where people brushed their teeth with bleach, gargled with bleach, and even sucked on hand sanitizer wipes.
People see a product label that promises to kill 99.99% of all germs, and they think that the product will work on their skin, Lopez said. “This is people taking one plus one and somehow they’re magically getting 10.”
Mulling over whether to take a sip of disinfectant might sound stupid. (It’s a bad idea. Don’t do it.) But the coronavirus pandemic has driven people to their wits' end, Johnson-Arbor pointed out.
“When there’s a crisis, people don’t always think clearly or do the rational thing,” she said. “I think people are very scared of getting sick. They’re scared of the virus, and they really want to do whatever they can to protect [themselves].”
Cover: People in the long lines at Market Basket in Waltham, MA buy bleach and frozen peas, among other items, as they prepare for possible quarantine due to coronavirus on March 13, 2020. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)