COVID-19: What you need to know before you spray or wipe

The coronavirus pandemic has made disinfectant sprays and wipes into everyday household needs. Like all of us, I want to keep myself and my family healthy. I know that phrase on the spray bottle, “Kills 99.9% of bacteria & viruses”, can give us all a sense of security and health. But what are disinfectants? What concerns should we have about using them almost everywhere? As a starting place, I suggest that everyone remember that disinfectants are pesticides. That matters because pesticides are unique toxic chemicals: both designed to kill or damage living things and intentionally put out into our homes, schools, workplaces, parks, farms and more.

Pesticides are also unique in the way that our government regulates them. Although there are more requirements for health and safety testing for pesticides than for other classes of chemicals, the way that they are regulated leaves huge gaps. Most pesticides (and disinfectants) are mixtures of chemicals, but only a few of those are actually required to be publicly identified let alone tested for important health problems like cancer and birth defects. A long list of important questions is not usually asked or answered. For example, exactly what chemicals are in this product? How do these chemicals, especially when mixed together, impact children? How do these chemicals impact our hormones? How do they impact our ability to fight infections? 

Even with all these unanswered questions, we do already know that disinfectants are toxic. Calls to poison control centers about disinfectants, especially bleach, spiked during the first few months of the pandemic. Fortunately, a US EPA program called Design for the Environment (DfE) fills in some of these gaps. It’s a voluntary program, but companies that choose to participate can have their products reviewed. If the product meets the program’s strict criteria, the product can use a special Design for the Environment logo. Here is a summary of the criteria:

  • labelled with one of EPA’s least-hazardous categories for acute (short-term) toxicity
  • not likely to cause cancer or disrupt hormones
  • not likely to cause birth defects, reproductive problems, genetic damage, or damage to the nervous system
  • ALL ingredients in the product have been reviewed
  • no protective equipment is required for use
  • no issues with reports of adverse effects
  • no issues with how well the product kills germs
  • no issues with compliance with EPA regulations

The bottom line? No pesticide is without hazards. They are, after all, designed to be toxic. But Design for the Environment products are more thoroughly evaluated, and have fewer concerns, than other disinfectants. They are products that the Center for Environmental Health feels comfortable in recommending. To see the names of specific products that meet Design for the Environment criteria and are also effective against the coronavirus, click here for our infographic and here for a technical factsheet. Please join me in keeping us healthy by using safer disinfectants.