Earth Matters: Cleaning Safely in the Time of COVID-19

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I had originally wanted to write about the cleaner air we are all enjoying due to fewer cars and trucks on our roads. Not only has the reduced traffic made our environment noticeably cleaner, but the diminished ambient noise levels have revealed other sounds that are often masked by our busy transportation-heavy lives. Now when we sit in our backyard, it’s often so quiet we can hear the flutter of bird’s wings.

But conversations with friends and neighbors about the stress they feel when shopping in grocery stores, accepting deliveries or having a plumber or other home repair professional come into their homes convinced me that I needed to write instead about how we are trying to stay safe and avoid exposure to the virus through almost constant cleaning.

Some of the first items that disappeared from our store shelves in early March were disinfectants like Clorox and sanitizing personal care products in the form of hand sprays and wipes. And as the virus spread, poison hotlines were seeing a rise in accidents with cleaning products. A recent idea floated by our president that we could cleanse our bodies internally with disinfectants further exacerbated these situations, even though the worldwide medical community concurred that this was a ridiculous and dangerous suggestion.

Sanitizers are designed to be used only on our skin and disinfectants are designed to be used on hard surfaces.

For COVID-19 and other viruses, we can take simple precautions and purchase products that can protect us without using toxic chemicals. The Centers for Disease Control advises that the best way to prevent infectious disease transmission is to stay out of contact with those who have already contracted the disease. You can best accomplish this by staying home, wearing a fitted mask whenever you have to go out and keeping a safe distance from people in grocery stores and other public places. Avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes and wash your hands when you have touched anything that other people may also have touched.

Washing your hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds with plain soap and warm water is very effective at killing the coronavirus. Soap breaks down the virus’s fat membrane and the infectious material falls apart. Soap is made of molecules that look like tiny pins, but like a magnet, the pins have two different poles. The head of the pin loves water, but the tail of the pin hates it. So when these soap molecules are on your hands, that tail is searching for something else to stick into, to get away from the water. When it finds viruses or bacteria, it sticks into them, bursting them and killing them. Eventually a bunch of these pins come together in a ball, tails in and heads out, carrying away the remains of their poking. Those little balls, called micelles, wash down the drain!

Antibacterial soap is not more effective than regular soap at destroying COVID-19. And those popular antibacterial gel hand sanitizers are ineffective because the antibacterial ingredients do not affect viruses at all. On the other hand, alcohol-based hand sanitizers or wipes with at least 60 percent ethanol or 70 percent isopropanol are effective. Another chemical common in hand sanitizers is benzalkonium chloride, but CDC says evidence shows that it is less reliably effective against the coronavirus than alcohol.

Frequently touched surfaces and objects like kitchen counters, sinks, screens, handles and switches can be cleaned and disinfected easily using regular household cleaning products and safe disinfectants. If a surface is dirty, however, it should be cleaned with soap or detergent before disinfecting, as the disinfecting ingredient could be wasted on attacking dirt and less effective at killing germs. Natural-based disinfecting active ingredients include citric acid, ethanol, isopropanol, hydrogen peroxide, L-lactic acid and sodium bisulfate, all listed as effective at eliminating the virus on the EPA’s “Design for the Environment” Program.

Care should be taken to avoid more toxic disinfectants that can cause adverse health effects, especially those with chlorine bleach or sodium hypochlorite, quaternary ammonium compounds, phenolic compounds, hydrochloric acid or peracetic acid. There are also many other toxic ingredients in popular disinfectant products that are not listed on labels. The Environmental Working Group has a very useful guide to disinfectant products that are safe and effective against the novel coronavirus. Look for “Cleaning for Covid-19 Safely and Effectively” on its website.

One of the few important facts we have learned about COVID-19 is that there are people who are more vulnerable to the effects of the virus than others. These are generally people with respiratory illnesses, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and those with weakened or compromised immune systems. And it is in these populations that there may be a higher use of sanitizers and disinfectants that may actually have a negative impact on their existing conditions, making them even more vulnerable.

During a public health emergency involving an infectious disease, it is important to carefully choose the products you will be using frequently to keep your family safe. Introducing toxic chemicals that can exacerbate pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of serious complications from COVID-19 should be avoided.

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