Number of bleach-related incidents up in Belgium due to COVID-19 fears

[EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN]

Belgium’s Poison Control Centre has recorded an increase of 15% in the number of calls it receives since the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March, as people have increasingly started experimenting with hazardous substances.

“The consequences of the coronavirus crisis are making themselves known, according to our figures. Compared to the same period last year (April 2019) almost eight hundred more calls were handled,” said Patrick De Cock, communication coordinator of Belgium Poison Control Centre, in a statement.

“An increase of no less than 15%. Such a sharp increase has never been measured before,” De Cock added, which  translates in up to 1,000 more calls per month than in the same period last year.

In particular, the Centre has experienced a sharp increase in drug and alcohol poisoning and the number of incidents related to bleach has multiplied by 12, some having experimented with its use for disinfecting.

“We have never seen such a significant increase in the history of the Poison Control Center,” Dominique Vandijck, deputy director of the Poison Control Centre, told VRT Niews.

“We always see an increase in the number of calls during holiday periods. But in coronavirus times, there’s another 15% to 20% on top of that, which is very significant,” he added.

According to Vandijck, people are more likely to come into contact with hazardous substances because they stay at home, where they mix cleaning products, pour bleach into other containers or become the victim of fake solutions against coronavirus sold online, such as those based on essential oils, which can be toxic in large doses.

“People are much more concerned with cleaning and hygiene. They clean more often, with stronger products, or combinations [of different products]. That’s not always a good idea, because chemical vapours that can be very irritating can arise,” he said.

In many cases, people call the emergency line because they attempted to disinfect their hands with bleach, methanol, or wash their bodies with essential oils.

“We even got calls from people who had put bleach in their bathwater. To be able to disinfect their whole bodies, they said. For God’s sake. Don’t do that,” Vandijck told Het Nieuwsblad.

“These are all very dangerous products, which can cause serious burns or poisoning,” Vandijck said.

The increase in bleach-related cases also came against the background of US President Trump’s suggestion that an “injection inside” the human body with a disinfectant like bleach or isopropyl alcohol could help combat the virus.

Although Trump’s statements had prompted aggressive pushback from public health officials around the country, with the president said he was playing a trick on reporters, it caused a significant spike in the number of poison cases across the country.

“We did not hear about people injecting themselves with bleach, but they did start using it more and more often. We assume that the increased number of bleach accidents is related and it shows what far-reaching consequences it can have if such people make such statements,” Vandijck told VRT Niews.

Following Trump’s comments, RB, which manufactures disinfectants for the European market, issued a statement urging the public never to attempt to consume its products.

“Due to recent speculation and social media activity RB (the makers of Lysol and Dettol) has been asked whether internal administration of disinfectants may be appropriate for investigation or use as a treatment for coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2),” a company representative said.

“As a global leader in health and hygiene products we must be clear that under no circumstances should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route),” it added.

Another company, Domestos, which manufactures bleach-based products in Europe, back then had also tweeted a warning to their customers not to ingest their products.

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