The Pandemic Calls for Disinfectant, but It Has Poisoned the Wildlife in China

The Pandemic Calls for Disinfectant, but It Has Poisoned the Wildlife in China

Because of the pandemic, people have been buying and using disinfectants so that they can lower the risk of getting the virus. Unfortunately, most of them don’t understand the toxicity of the chemical.

Before using any chemical disinfectant, it’s important to know the manufacturer’s instructions to determine the efficacy of the disinfectant against the biohazards and be sure to allow for sufficient contact time. Make sure to read label instructions such as shelf life, storage, compatibility, safe use, disposal, and the appropriate protective equipment.

It might seem to constricting for some people. They may argue “We just wanna be safe, so why the precautions and rules?” The answer is that so it doesn’t harm you, the environment, and the other living things.

Countries like South Korea, France, Spain, and other countries have sprayed a lot of disinfectant in the urban areas. There are trucks, drones, and robots that pour out disinfectant to streets, parks, playgrounds, and other outdoor public spaces with the purpose of killing virus.

The purpose is understandable. But the practice isn’t always that good. For example, in a village in Spain, tractors dumped hundreds of gallons of bleach onto a public beach.

Methods to kill the virus

Since the outbreak, we know that there are ways to prevent catching the virus. WHO recommends alcohol-based hand rub for 20 to 30 seconds, washing our hands with soaps, and using chlorinated water (0.05%) if the former two aren’t available (prolonged exposure can increase the risk of infection and asthma however).

If you want to disinfect small areas such as equipment or surfaces (thermometers, for instance), WHO recommends 70% ethyl alcohol or sodium hypochlorite at 0.5%.

It’s what we’ve been doing for a while since we’ve heard of the outbreak, isn’t it? Not gonna lie, I do it to everything I bought online too, using alcohol sprays.

But, infectious-disease experts and WHO have denounced the practice, stating that both are ineffective and a potential health hazard to people, in particular respiratory irritation from inhaling the chemicals. The organization also warned that combining bleach and ammonia could release potentially fatal gases.

Additionally, in a new Environmental Research journal, biologists claimed that the use of those substances in urban settings (particularly at a large amount) poses a significant danger to wildlife.

Poisoned animals in China

Disinfectant drones in Seongnam City
Disinfectant drones in Seongnam City. Photo by Seongnam City Wikimedia Commons

In January 2020, China started sanitizing the cities and not long after, there were reports of poisoned animals.

Then in the following month, an investigation by the Chongqing Forestry Bureau in Chongqing (a city in southwestern China), found that there were at least 135 animals including wild boars, siberian weasels, and blackbirds that died after exposure to disinfectants.

Sodium hypochlorite, chlorine, and bleach, which are disinfectant ingredients, are “acutely toxic to both terrestrial and aquatic animals,” says Dongming Li, professor of ecology at Hebei Normal University and co-author of the Environmental Research analysis.

Li and his colleagues’ research were based solely on the Chongqing Forestry Bureau’s investigation and they’ve not examine the dead animals to confirm what had killed them.

Nonetheless, the surge of animal deaths when the country began to disinfect urban areas are, according to Li, a concerning evidence. “The overuse of disinfectants may contaminate the habitats of urban wildlife,” he said.

Li’s team is now calling on world leaders to regulate the dispersal of disinfectants in urban areas, which they say is being done without input from the scientific community.

The good and bad

It’s true that chemical disinfectants have their use. They can kill viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms by destroying their cell walls and damaging their proteins through oxidation.

But when inhaled or ingested by people or animals, the ingredients can irritate or corrode the mucous membranes of the respiratory and digestive tracts. In extreme cases, exposure can lead to death.

There haven’t been more investigations like the one in Chongqing outside China, so we still don’t know how this problem has happened in other countries’ urban wildlife and ecosystems.

Christopher J. Schell, professor of urban ecology at the University of Washington, said that if we put toxicants into a system, they’re going to travel through the food web. It’s the basic rule of ecology.

There’s only Chongqing investigation, that’s true. But there’s also a reported observation of this phenomenon. On Brickell Key, an artificial island around Miami, several local residents and their dogs got sick after the “government” of the island implemented an outdoor sanitation program.

Workers in hazmat suits were seen spraying disinfectant daily on the island’s parks, walkways, and benches.

Just a week after the program began, some residents began to experience painful headaches and according to a local news report, there were at least two dogs that vomited.

Use it less frequently

disinfectant drones in Seongnam. Photo by Seongnam City
disinfectant drones in Seongnam. Photo by Seongnam City Wikimedia Commons

We can’t deny that sanitizing and using disinfectants on frequently touched surfaces can help reduce the spread of this new virus. However, we also find out recently that the disease can spread through breathing in droplets in the air from an infected person, not coming into contact with contaminated surfaces.

Which is why WHO advised against using disinfectant outdoors in May. The organization stated that streets and sidewalks are not considered as routes of infection for COVID-19 and the spraying of those chemicals can be harmful for people’s health and cause eye, respiratory, or skin irritation/damage.

And from the Chongqing investigation, now we know that we shouldn’t continue this practice because it’s not good for the wildlife.

Even so, some countries like Vietnam and Brazil continue to spray disinfectants in public areas. The city where I live still do this as well, spraying the streets and cars.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused public fear in many countries. Many health agencies around the world may spray more disinfectants to ensure the virus is fully killed and to alleviate their worries of viral infection,” said Li.

Li continued that instead of spraying disinfectants everywhere, it’s better for people to stay home as long as they can.

“Rather than indiscriminately spraying high volumes of disinfectants in biodiversity-rich areas such as urban parks, wetlands, and green spaces. It would be preferable to suspend human activities in such places,” he said.

One thing to note, though, surfaces that are highly or frequently touched by public like doorknobs, poles on transit vehicles, elevator buttons, park/street benches, and hand railings may need disinfectants.

But at the same time, public and sanitation workers must use them with care, with protective equipment, and make sure that they don’t use disinfectants too lavishly.

What do you think? Should we significantly reduce public spraying of disinfectant or should we prolong our self-quarantine?



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