A recent caller to the South Texas Poison Center asked about the ideal bleach to water ratio. He said he heard it could be injected to fight the novel coronavirus.

“We recommended against that idea,” said Shawn Varney, M.D., director of the South Texas Poison Center and professor in UT Health San Antonio’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

As the use of disinfectants and other cleaning products has skyrocketed in the face of the novel coronavirus, so too have the number of calls to poison centers across the nation. Texas and San Antonio are no exceptions.

Dr. Varney said that calls to the six regional poison centers in Texas from March 1 to April 20 regarding disinfectants were up 149% and calls about bleaches and hand sanitizers were both up 70% over the same time last year.

“Everyone’s trying to be sanitary with COVID-19 going around,” Dr. Varney said. “Nobody wants to get sick. You’re trying to clean off your grocery bags, your hands. Nobody wants to touch anything. Since you’re trying to do it all the time, you’re going to have hand sanitizers or bleach around all the time.”

And that leaves children especially vulnerable.

“The greatest portion of the population that’s affected are children under 5,” Dr. Varney said. The cleaners and sanitizers are “unattended, just sitting there. And if a kid sees somebody going over there to that bottle all the time, and they’re having their own hands cleaned, they’re curious.”

He advised parents and guardians to keep all such products “up high and out of sight. Just keep them away.”

Dr. Varney said poison centers across the country have fielded calls about whether injecting disinfectants into the body could help combat the coronavirus.

“The American Academy of Clinical Toxicology came out and said do not do this, this is dangerous. Do not put this into your body,” he said.

He noted that Texas poison centers had 10 calls this year, as opposed to none last year, due to exposure to chloroquine, the parent compound of hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug touted as a possible COVID-19 treatment. The drug has not been approved to treat the coronavirus.

“Chloroquine is just in the press a lot, and people are saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got to use it,’” Dr. Varney said. “But chloroquine is a very dangerous medication” that could cause serious effects, including death, particularly among very young children, he added.

Dr. Varney said the number of calls to poison centers is significant and useful, but they don’t tell the whole story.

“These data only represent calls that come voluntarily from the community,” he said. “Many people don’t call for one reason or another, so these numbers grossly underrepresent the true number of exposures that occur.”

The bottom line, Dr. Varney said, is that “these chemicals are not benign. They do a job, which is to disinfect, to clean, to kill viruses and bacteria, which are living organisms. And the human body is a living organism, so they are just as likely to harm our body if we are drinking them, inhaling them, putting them on our skin. There will be a clinical effect. Use them properly and only for their intended purpose.”

The South Texas Poison Center is part of UT Health San Antonio’s Department of Emergency Medicine. Specialists who speak both English and Spanish can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-800-222-1222.