Poison safety during a pandemic: Guidance for school nurses, teachers and daycare providers


During the COVID-19 pandemic, poison centers across the country have seen increases in certain types of poisonings. These poisoning risks will be of concern to teachers, nurses and other staff members as they return to school under unique circumstances. The NNEPC has prepared this post to help school staff members, daycare providers and others working with children and teens safely manage the increased levels of cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing brought on by the pandemic.

Hand sanitizer safety

Proper hand hygiene is important in preventing the spread of illnesses such as COVID-19. Washing your hands with soap and water is best, but alcohol-based hand sanitizers are a good alternative when soap and water are not available or not practical.

However, increased availability of hand sanitizer increases the risk of ingestions:

  • Pre-school-aged children may swallow hand sanitizer unknowingly or accidentally.
  • Young school-aged children and preteens may swallow hand sanitizer in response to dares or to show off.
  • Teenagers may swallow hand sanitizer deliberately for the alcoholic effects.

Swallowing enough hand sanitizer can lead to intoxication and related effects. For young children this may take only a little more than a mouthful. These effects can include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Vomiting, with a risk of choking on vomit

In addition, the FDA has identified certain brands of hand sanitizer that inappropriately contain methanol or 1-propanol. These toxic alcohols are not safe ingredients for hand sanitizer and can cause more severe symptoms and even death if they are swallowed.

Because of these risks, keep hand sanitizer in a safe place where students cannot access it and supervise all use of hand sanitizer  .

Cleaner and disinfectant safety

Classroom

Classroom photo by Flickr user alamosbasement. Creative Commons 2.0.

Most accidental exposures to chemicals such as cleaning products and disinfectants involve splashes in the eye, skin irritation or burns, or breathing in fumes—either from using the product without ventilating or from mixing chemicals together. Swallowing may also be an issue, especially with young children who are exploring.

Things to consider:

  • Effects of these exposures may be immediate but they can also be delayed for minutes or even several hours.
  • Many products that do not cause irritation from a single use may be more irritating when used frequently.
  • Some people are more sensitive to chemicals than others are. Fumes may cause breathing difficulty for people with asthma or other lung conditions.

When using cleaners and disinfectants, take these safety steps:

  • Read and follow the label instructions each time you use a product.
  • Use gloves and ventilate the area while cleaning. Goggles may be appropriate if the product could splash in your eyes.
  • Avoiding mixing cleaning products—use only one product at a time.
  • Avoid using cleaning products while students are present.
  • Store cleaning products in places where students cannot access them.
  • Keep products in their original containers whenever possible. If you must put a cleaning product in a different container, be sure it is clearly labeled and stored far away from food, drinks and medications.

The poison center is a 24/7 resource

The NNEPC is here 24 hours a day at 1-800-222-1222 to provide fast, expert advice, whether a student has swallowed hand sanitizer, someone is having symptoms from a cleaning product exposure, or in any other case of potential poisoning. These situations can include cases of students eating plants or berries on school grounds, medications errors or deliberate misuse of medication, mishaps in chemistry classes, gas leaks and many others.

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