A Kansas man drank a cleaning product last weekend and called the state's poison control center. He wasn’t the only one.
Donald Trump’s riff on using caustic cleaners and disinfectants to treat COVID-19 lit up helplines nationwide from people seeking advice on ingesting or inhaling household cleaning products such as Lysol and Clorox.
When Trump floated that idea, aired during a White House coronavirus briefing, he unwittingly poured fuel on a burning fire. Disinfectant-related calls to poison control centers had already risen by 20 percent from January to March, many due to the overzealous and incorrect use of toxic products by people deep-cleaning their homes to safeguard them from COVID-19.
The calls were a reaction to growing public awareness of the coronavirus pandemic. They spiked following March 11, when actor Tom Hanks announced online that he’d tested positive for the virus. In the next few weeks, he was followed by Prince Charles, Brooklyn Nets player Kevin Durant and three other Nets players, and late-night talk show host Andy Cohen.
At the beginning of April, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo began giving daily, on-camera updates on his experience fighting the illness.
But calls climbed to new heights after Trump mused during a White House press briefing about the feasibility of injecting or consuming cleaning products that kill COVID-19 on counters and other surfaces.
“And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute,” he said. “And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that. So you’re going to have to use medical doctors with — but it sounds interesting to me.”
In a typically meandering verbal waltz, Trump also floated the idea of somehow getting UV light, which is used to disinfect surfaces of COVI-19, inside the body.
Trump later denied making the statements, but they were hard to duck because they were recorded and replayed frequently.
Trump later acknowledged them but claimed he was being sarcastic. Recordings of the briefing, however, show a very earnest Trump trying to help and, perhaps, get credit if his idea worked.
Even people who like Trump don’t trust his medical advice on COVID-19. They prefer to get direction from their governors or Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime chief of the National Institute of allergies and infectious diseases.
A Morning Consult poll found that 71 percent of respondents said they’d trust Fauci “a lot” or “some” about when to end shutdowns in place all over the country.
On the other hand, 41 percent said they wouldn’t trust Trump at all — and 11 percent said they’d trust him “not much.”
The poll was conducted before Trump shared potential new uses for cleaning products.
Still, as president, Trump has a lot of influence over millions of people, especially those who watch Fox News or listen to right-wing radio. They take him at his word, even if it is always changing.
Some apparently trust him enough to embrace his version of the Tide pod challenge. After the White House briefing, the phone began ringing off the hook at medical help lines and poison control centers all over the country.
For example, New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene told NPR that its poison control center took 30 calls about exposure to household cleaners within 18 hours of Trump’s remarks. That’s double the normal number of calls in that timeframe.
The Illinois Department of Public Health reported a “significant increase” in calls about disinfectants and household cleaners in the immediate aftermath of the White House briefing, including a call from a person who tried gargling with a mixture of mouthwash and bleach.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said his state’s hotline received “hundreds” of calls “asking if it was right to ingest Clorox or alcohol cleaning products, whether that was going to help them fight the virus.”
Many other states had similar reports. They responded by disseminating warnings to their citizens.
The makers of disinfectants and cleaning products also issued strong messages warning consumers not to use their products for anything but their intended uses.
RB, which manufactures Lysol, tried to gain control of the potentially explosive situation by issuing a statement saying, “As a global leader in health and hygiene products, we must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route.”
The Environmental Protection Agency released new guidelines: "Never apply the product to yourself or others. Do not ingest disinfectant products."
Doctors and other medical professionals issued warnings via Twitter, which also was overrun with comic tweets and memes.
As for Trump, when asked by a reporter on April 27 if he took responsibility for the sudden rash of poisonings, he said, “No, I don’t. No, I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine that,” he said.