A plastic carrier full of household cleaning products sits on a kitchen counter. An official at the Portland-based Northern New England Poison Center said that the center is getting more calls from private citizens since the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Maine, apparently because of mishaps people are having with cleaning products as they try to more vigorously clean their homes to fight the spread of the disease. Credit: Bill Trotter

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ELLSWORTH, Maine — Calls placed to the Northern New England Poison Center from people’s homes have increased, according to Karen Simone, a toxicologist who runs the center at Maine Medical Center in Portland, but they do not appear to be a result of President Trump’s suggestion Friday that ingesting certain household cleaners can keep people from getting the disease.

Rather the increase seems to stem in part from more intense home cleaning efforts aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, she said, and the occasional mishaps that result.

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“It seems like we’re getting a whole lot of [calls about] fumes,” Simone said. “The adults are getting into trouble more often than the kids.”

She said callers also seem to have concerns or questions about dietary supplements such as melatonin, which people take to help them sleep better at night.

Calls from private homes, as opposed to calls from doctors’ offices or hospitals, have increased by 16 percent from March 1 to April 22 compared to the same time period in recent years, she said. Of those, calls involving children under the age of 6 have increased 9 percent, while those involving people aged 20 or older have increased 23 percent.

Simone said that the calls about fumes seem to stem from homeowners mixing cleaners together, which the NNE Poison Center recommends that people do not do. Mixing bleach, for example, with anything acidic can produce noxious fumes such as chlorine, which can be especially bothersome if mixed in a confined space, she said.

Also, because cleaning materials such as hand sanitizer or disinfectants tend to be out more — a result of new daily routines that people have adopted in hopes of not getting sick — there are more opportunities to confuse them for other products. Small children can more easily grab a bottle of cleaning fluid if it sits out on a table all day, Simone said, or a squeeze bottle of soap can distractedly be mistaken for a nipple-top water bottle.

“It’s a little bit of a chaotic atmosphere,” Simone said of the change in routines that have led to the higher call counts from private residents. “It’s a new normal, and people are trying to adjust to it.”

She said that the poison center recommends that people follow advice on cleaning product labels to avoid any physical irritation that might result from mishandling them. Adequately marking product containers, such as with large marker pens, and storing them separately from food or drinks also can help avoid mistaking them for something else.

Simone said the center also is getting more calls from people over the age of 60 who have concerns about their medications. She said poison control center officials are not sure why this is the case but their best guess is that, with social distancing measures, older people have less in-person support from relatives or home health aides, and so are calling the poison center’s hotline more often.

“Everyone is trying to avoid the doctor’s office,” she said.

Simone said that the center consistently gets calls about suicide attempts, but those type of calls do not appear to have increased since the pandemic spread to Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont, which are the three states served by the Portland poison center. About 13 percent of the poison center’s roughly 1,600 calls from March 1 through April 22 have been about suicide attempts, she said, which is a few percentage points less than the number of suicide calls it received in the same time period in 2018 and 2019.

Overall, the poison center typically gets between 10,000 and 11,000 calls each year about exposures, or possible poisonings, Simone said.

She added that, despite the president’s suggestion that people could ingest household cleaning fluids to avoid getting sick, it has not resulted in anyone trying it out and then calling the center for help. The remark has led a few people to contact the center, she said, but only either to complain about the questionable advice, or to place a prank call or email to pretend they had taken it seriously.

“I really don’t think people are” taking the remark seriously, Simone said.

Anyone in Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont who has a question or concern about taking too much medicine or being exposed to or ingesting a toxic substance can contact the poison center hotline at 1-800-222-1222, by texting “POISON” to 85511, or via live chat on the center’s website.

To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....