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Emily Scarr
Maryland PIRG State Director

Author: Emily Scarr

Maryland PIRG State Director

(410) 467-9389

Started on staff: 2005
B.A., Vassar College

Emily directs strategy, organizational development, research, communications and legislative advocacy for Maryland PIRG. Recently, Emily helped win small donor public financing in Montgomery County, Howard County, Prince George's County, and Baltimore City; the Family and Firefighter Protection Act to ban flame retardants in children's products, furniture and mattresses; and, the Maryland Keep Antibiotics Effective Act to protect public health by restricting the use of antibiotics on Maryland farms. Emily serves on the Executive Committees of the Maryland Fair Elections Coalition, the Maryland Campaign to Keep Antibiotics Working, and the Maryland Tobacco Free Kids Coalition. She also serves on the Steering Committees for the Maryland Pesticide Action Network and Marylanders for Open Government. Emily lives in Baltimore with her husband, children, and dog.

If you’re like me, you’re spending a lot more time cleaning while sheltering in place. My increased time at home cooking, working, and playing with my children makes a lot of mess! I am also cleaning more as a way to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19. I enjoy my cleaning routine; in a day full of zoom calls and wrangling small children, it’s nice to take a break to listen to the radio or music while I wipe down the counters or sweep the floor. 

But increased cleaning is having some unintended consequences for our health.

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), calls to poison control centers for exposure to cleaners and disinfectants rapidly increased in March. The 36% increase in poisoning from disinfectants is likely a side-effect of Americans trying to clean and sanitize our homes to protect from the coronavirus. According to the report, calls related to bleach exposure saw the greatest increase, at more than 60%.

Accidents with cleaning products containing toxic chemicals can happen in a variety of ways.  While some of these events result from accidental ingestion by kids (always bad, no matter the cleaning product), others result from mixing cleaners that shouldn’t be mixed, which can produce toxic gas, or severe irritation to the skin from not wearing protective gear.  

Two common toxic chemicals in disinfectants can cause serious health problems, from either an accident or from long-term exposure: 

  • Chlorine Compounds/Bleach: Many people are familiar with bleach. Unfortunately, acute or long-term exposure to bleach and other products containing chlorine compounds can create health concerns, in particular, respiratory problems
  • Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QAC): There is growing concern about these chemicals and their link to asthma and other health problems. These compounds are often listed on ingredients as “ammonium chloride.” 

We can reduce accidents by reading and heeding labels, keeping products away from children, and by not mixing cleaning products. Preventing harm from long-term exposure is more challenging.

But does it really make sense that we are having daily close encounters with dangerous chemicals? If some cleaning agents can cause harm, does it make sense to use them to protect ourselves and our families, when safer alternatives are available?

According to the CDC and other experts, we don’t need these toxic chemicals, and safer alternatives are at our fingertips. In order to protect ourselves from the coronavirus the CDC says:

While we should disinfect high-touch surfaces, it is important to remember that the primary transmission method of COVID-19 is person to person contact. Some viruses and bacteria are incredibly persistent and can remain active on surfaces for weeks at a time. Fortunately, COVID-19 is not one of them. 

Bleach and QACs are like sledge hammers being used to kill an ant: they will kill the ant, but are likely to cause a lot more damage. There is simply no need to use these products in the home.

And evidence suggests that COVID-19, like other coronaviruses, is quite easy to kill.

I’m pleased to be able to leave toxic cleaning supplies behind. With two kids under the age of three, reducing the risks to my kids and myself is a no-brainer, especially when so many other risks are outside of my control.

For more information on cleaning products the EPA has recommended for use on COVID-19, you can search the EPA’s database by product or by ingredient.

Emily Scarr
Maryland PIRG State Director

Author: Emily Scarr

Maryland PIRG State Director

(410) 467-9389

Started on staff: 2005
B.A., Vassar College

Emily directs strategy, organizational development, research, communications and legislative advocacy for Maryland PIRG. Recently, Emily helped win small donor public financing in Montgomery County, Howard County, Prince George's County, and Baltimore City; the Family and Firefighter Protection Act to ban flame retardants in children's products, furniture and mattresses; and, the Maryland Keep Antibiotics Effective Act to protect public health by restricting the use of antibiotics on Maryland farms. Emily serves on the Executive Committees of the Maryland Fair Elections Coalition, the Maryland Campaign to Keep Antibiotics Working, and the Maryland Tobacco Free Kids Coalition. She also serves on the Steering Committees for the Maryland Pesticide Action Network and Marylanders for Open Government. Emily lives in Baltimore with her husband, children, and dog.