On Thursday, President Donald Trump suggested that disinfectant products could perhaps be “injected” or put inside human bodies in order to treat COVID-19. (Trump backtracked the next day, saying that his "off-the-cuff" comments at an official press conference were sarcasm.)
I have seen some of the most far-fetched and self-destructive actions that people will do to themselves by ingesting different toxins.
As an emergency physician and a medical toxicologist (a doctor who treats poisoned patients), I have seen some of the most far-fetched and self-destructive actions that people will do to themselves by injecting, consuming or otherwise ingesting different toxins. The reports I've seen and heard in the media and on cable news scare the hell out of me.
There is no need to test this hypothesis since we know that disinfectants kill human cells and can make people extremely sick or perhaps cause them to die.
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Most households harbor disinfectants stored in a cupboard somewhere. The products we use to clean kitchen counters after contact with raw meat, our toilets, and in our current pandemic, likely many more surfaces.
But the way that chemical disinfectants work to kill viruses and bacteria is the destruction of the building blocks of all living organisms, lipids, proteins and genetic material. These building blocks are crucial to viruses and bacteria, as well as plant and animal cells. Disinfectants’ destructive properties are not exclusive to pathogens like SARS-CoV-2, they also destroy healthy human cells.
Bleach, the common name for sodium hypochlorite, among other compounds, primarily works as a disinfectant, because chloride is a powerful oxidizing agent — meaning that it can remove electrons from other molecules. This allows it to disrupt things like cell membranes, and other components that are necessary for all cells, not just for harmful pathogens, to survive.
Bleach has occasional medical uses, such as in the treatment of skin colonization by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). These exceptions are rare and always involve dilution and limited contact with skin only, as well as medical supervision. And even the limited contact of bleach to human skin is still toxic.
Sadly, the toxicity of these active ingredients is getting lost in a storm of mixed messages. According to the Maryland state government, more than 100 people called the state’s emergency hotline asking about ingesting bleach.
But even prior to this pandemic, ingestions of bleach have increased in groups looking to circumvent the medical community, especially the anti-vaccine movement, with significant harms noted. The mistaken belief that actual (i.e., scientifically supported) uses can be applied in novel ways or at-home treatments is known as “pseudoscience,” which is a polite way of saying “not science.”
Injecting bleach has also been tried (usually by people trying to harm themselves), with effects ranging from destruction of blood cells to kidney and liver failure to death.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, people have been desperate for solutions. While evidence-based measures like social distancing and increased hygiene have proven to be effective, people are still seeking more immediate cures.
Many parts of the country have not been devastated as much as epicenters like New York City and are seeing decreased hospitalizations because citizens are staying home. Poison control centers, however, have seen a massive increase in calls secondary to exposures to cleaners and disinfectants over this same time period. There are reports of people ingesting bleaches, isopropyl alcohol and hand sanitizer, and suffering the toxic effects of mixing chemical cleaning agents together and creating poisonous gases.
In uncertain times, conspiracy theories can seem appealing, and it is no coincidence that multiple conspiracies have circulated.
In uncertain times, conspiracy theories can seem appealing, and it is no coincidence that multiple conspiracies have circulated about the medical profession amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Desperate individuals are looking for hope anywhere they can find it. As a medical professional, I am just as concerned and worried as most of the public. I, too, want to find better solutions to both prevent and treat COVID-19.
But if disinfectant therapies were safe and effective in humans, then the medical community would be the first to advocate for their use. However, they are not, and I’ve treated many patients who have injected and ingested bleaches, alcohols and other cleaning products — not a single one of these incidents has ever prevented or cured an infection. Most of the time, they have just created a serious injury.
Our medical system is already under an immense strain. We don’t need to add poisoning to our current health crisis. Please, I ask of you, leave the chemicals in the cupboard.