The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased cleaning and demand for all types of cleaning and disinfecting products, including disinfectant alternatives that contain hydrogen peroxide. However, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces with hydrogen peroxide-based disinfectants can be detrimental to indoor air quality and pose a health risk, according to new research led by the University of Saskatchewan (USask).
The research team found that mopping a floor with commercially available hydrogen peroxide-based disinfectant raised the level of airborne hydrogen peroxide to more than 600 parts per billion — about 60% of the maximum level permitted for exposure over eight hours and 600 times the level naturally occurring in the air.
“When you’re washing surfaces, you are also changing the air you are breathing. Poor indoor air quality is associated with respiratory issues such as asthma,” said University of Saskatchewan chemistry researcher Dr. Tara Kahan, senior author of the study and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Analytical Chemistry.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, we couldn't do research on this topic because hydrogen peroxide solutions were out of stock," Kahan said.
Kahan and her team, which also included researchers from Syracuse University, York University (Toronto), and University of York (England), spent weeks spraying the vinyl flooring with 0.88% hydrogen peroxide disinfectant and wiping it dry with a paper towel either immediately or after letting it soak in for an hour. The team then tested the air at average human head height. She said it wasn't surprising the results showed hydrogen peroxide in the air.
"But this had never been done before, and we had no idea how much hydrogen peroxide would get into the air," she said.
Typically, the levels of hydrogen peroxide are at such low levels in most indoor environments that instruments can't detect it.
"When we cleaned it, we saw that the levels went up by a factor of 100 or 1,000 to quite high levels that are very easy to measure."
Those levels were at the top end of what is recommended as a long-term exposure limit.
"The real risk is for people who get repeatedly exposed, such as janitors and house cleaners," Kahan said. "We washed the floor and collected measurements at face height–the concentrations will be even stronger at the floor or at the level of a countertop."
The impact of hydrogen peroxide-based disinfectants on children and pets, who are physically closer to the disinfected surfaces, is unknown. The University of Saskatchewan study results were published in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology.
What Are the Health Effects of Hydrogen Peroxide?
At one time, hydrogen peroxide was a staple of many medicine cabinets and first aid kits and was often used to disinfect skin wounds. This is no longer recommended since research has shown that hydrogen peroxide can irritate or damage the healthy cells needed for wound healing, according to the U.S. National Capital Poison Center (NCPC).
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overexposure to hydrogen peroxide may cause extreme irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Inhaling fumes can lead to lung irritation and damage. Skin exposure can lead to painful blisters, burns, and skin whitening. Exposure of the eyes to concentrations of 5% or more can result in permanent eye damage. Laboratory tests with bacteria show that hydrogen peroxide is mutagenic; it changes and damages DNA. Hydrogen peroxide has also been shown to be carcinogenic to animals, though the effects of chronic exposure on humans are still unknown.
In case of hydrogen peroxide poisoning or overexposure, call Poison Control right away at 1-800-222-1222.
Related: What You Need to Know About Cleaning Chemicals & Lung Health
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