COVID-19 cleaning in schools: Is it doing more harm than good?

Disinfectants, hand sanitizer, and bleach are everywhere these days -- much more so than ever before it seems. The focus on cleaning every surface is certainly top of mind especially for schools with in-person classes. But are there risks associated with cleaning constantly for COVID-19?

Adriane Klumb

Adriane Klumb

Adriane Klumb is the mother of three and has decided to homeschool her children this year -- not because of fear over the virus at the center of this pandemic, but rather concern over cleaning for COVID-19.

“We’re concerned about the products being used in the schools, the chemicals in them, and the long-term effect on children and people working there,” explained Klumb.

Klumb is not alone in her concern. Amber Sarah’s four kids are in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District and are fully virtual right now.

Amber Sarah

Amber Sarah

“I don’t trust what they’re using,” said Sarah. “You clean a surface real fast and then a kid is touching that surface and putting their hands in their mouths. You have no idea what they’re being exposed to.”

FOX6 News took a sampling of public and private schools across southeast Wisconsin and asked them to provide us a list of products used to clean their schools for COVID-19. All responded and most used products from the same three companies – 3M, Clorox, and Spartan. The primary disinfecting ingredients are bleach and quaternary ammonium compounds -- also known as quat which, simply put, are less toxic and corrosive bleach alternatives.

“It’s kind of common sense,” said Dr. Kristin Bencik-BouDreau, a pediatrician with Children’s Wisconsin. “If you come in and there is a heavy smell, then I think it’s right for parents and individual teachers to say I think we need to talk about this.”

Dr. Bencik-BouDreau said she has few concerns over what is being used to keep schools clean.  

Dr. Kristin Bencik-BouDreau

Dr. Kristin Bencik-BouDreau

“The same chemical they are going to be using they’ve been using for years overnight., So I don’t have a lot of concern over the chemicals in the schools,” Dr. Bencik-BouDreau explained.

However, doctors are sounding the alarm when it comes to hand sanitizer. Nearly 200 different sanitizers are now on the FDA’s “Do Not Use” list because they have been found to contain methanol or other toxic substances.

“The demand was so high for hand sanitizer that people went outside the normal routes,” said Dr. Bencik-BouDreau.

Hand sanitizer

Calls for ingesting hand sanitizer are up 35% over last year at the Wisconsin Poison Center.

Dr. David Gummin is the medical director and said that is not the most alarming statistic. He indicated calls for drinking bleach are up more than 85%.

Dr. David Gummin

Dr. David Gummin

With more cleaning comes more opportunity to get into trouble, Dr. Gummin said. But when it comes to the safety of the products themselves, he said they have been vetted.

“The good news is most of the standard household and even industrial disinfecting agents and sterilants that we have out here are very safe products,” explained Dr. Gummin.

Hand sanitizer

Safe or not, Klumb and Sarah both said the frequency of exposure to these disinfectants is really what drives their concern. 

“It’s constantly being wiped down,” said Klumb. “Every single surface. We’ve never had this before. You’re literally wiping chairs tables doorknobs anything that you’re touching with these chemicals.”

“The exposure is ten times greater than it was before,” said Sarah.

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Dr. Bencik-BouDreau said she has heard this from parents as well and advises her patients to do research, ask questions, and be in the know when it comes to what is being used on or around their children. 

cleaning products

“I think as a parent you should talk to your district and when you’re voicing these concerns that’s when you say hey show me the studies that say these are safe for my kids to come in,” said Dr. Bencik-BouDreau.

Wisconsin Poison Center hotline: 1-800-222-1222

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