Jonathan M. Gitlin
On April 23, President Donald Trump told a press conference that, among other things scientists had learned about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, was the fact that it could be neutralized by sunlight or bleach. During the conference’s Q&A session, he went further, suggesting that knowledge could somehow be used to disinfect the lungs of COVID-19 patients, saying:
And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And 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. So, that, you’re going to have to use medical doctors with. But it sounds—it sounds interesting to me.
So we’ll see. But the whole concept of the light, the way it kills it in one minute, that’s—that’s pretty powerful.
The freewheeling answer led to widespread mockery and much concern that such advice, coming from so prominent a figure, could cause frightened Americans to ingest bleach as a way to ward off the disease. But on Tuesday, the American Association of Poison Control Centers published National Poison Data System data collected from around the country, and it exonerates Trump.
Yes, there has been a significant rise in calls to poison control centers concerning exposure to bleach, disinfectants, and also hand sanitizer—something we reported on following Trump’s remarks. But the data clearly shows that the rise in these exposures began in March—not six weeks later when Trump made his remarks.
For example, in January and February of this year, the number of cases of bleach exposure were roughly similar to the same months in 2019—about 3,000 per month. However, in March, this spiked to 5,068 cases, with the graph showing the numbers grew steadily during the middle of that month, several weeks before Trump’s press conference. Although April saw an even higher total number—5,739 cases, compared to 3,242 in April 2019—the graph shows the peak in bleach exposure actually occurred at the beginning of that month. Comparing the same date range (January 1 to May 10) for both years, the NPDS found a 38-percent increase in bleach exposure in 2020.
The data for disinfectant exposure tells a similar story. January 2020’s 1,706 cases looked a lot like January 2019’s 1,621 cases of disinfectant exposure. But in March 2020, the NPDS recorded 3,401 cases of disinfectant exposure—double the number from March 2019. The rise in disinfectant exposure was even greater—62 percent, year on year. The same trend is evident in the NPDS data for hand sanitizer exposure as well. Year-on-year data shows a 39-percent increase in 2020, with the rise beginning in March.
When broken out by age distribution, it appears that the overwhelming majority of hand sanitizer cases were for children ages 0 to 5. While this age group was well-represented in the bleach and disinfectant data sets, there were almost as many cases involving people ages 20 to 39 for both types of cleaning product.
If there is some good news from this data, it’s that only a small percentage of the cases reported to poison control centers were classified as having a major effect. There were no recorded deaths from bleach exposure, and the majority of bleach, disinfectant, or hand sanitizer exposure cases were judged as having no or minimal clinical effect.