Some downright troubling news from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDC): Calls to poison control centres increased noticeably in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period last year.
There was a 20.4% increase in calls about exposure to cleaners, and a 16.4% increase in calls about exposure to disinfectants, according to data from the The National Poison Data System (NPDS).
Daily calls to poison control centres started to spike in March, with concerns about exposure to bleach leading the way for cleaners, and non-alcohol disinfectants and hand sanitizers topping the list for disinfectants.
NPDS can’t make a direct link between the hotline calls and the coronavirus with the information it collects, but the timeline for the increase seems to indicate that that recent health concerns may have contributed to the increase.
In one frightening example noted in the report, a woman filled her sink with a mixture of bleach solution, vinegar, and hot water, and then soaked her produce in it. She had to be transported by ambulance to the emergency room to treat her upper-respiratory issues that resulted from inhaling the chemical mixture.
Which brings us to the point where we need to just spell it out: As much as you want to clean everything up, down and sideways right now, please don’t use cleaning products on your fruits and vegetables.
In a lengthy Twitter thread, Dr. Donald Schaffner, a distinguished professor in the Department Food Science at Rutgers University, laid out the safety basics for people who want to level up their cleaning routines.
To sum up:
Use cleaners designed for hard surfaces on surfaces only—not on your food or hands.
Use cleaners designed for skin on skin only—not on your food or surfaces.
Don’t mix cleaning products together. Best-case scenario, it won’t get your stuff any cleaner; worst-case scenario, you could poison yourself.
But for those people who want to wipe down their groceries when they get home from the store (even if you don’t really need to), what’s the best way to clean your fruits and vegetables? Is a half-hearted rinse—my usual method—enough?
I reached out to Schaffner for his recommendations for cleaning fresh produce.
All it takes to get your fruits and veggies clean, he said, is cold water.
If the item has a tough skin, you can use a brush. This rinsing should take place right before you eat the item, Schaffner specified. If you put freshly rinsed produce in the fridge, it’s more likely to get moldy, he said.
“I absolutely do not recommend washing with soap or bleach,” he said.
What about suggestions that you wash produce with a mixture of vinegar and water? Schaffner said there’s not much evidence to suggest it’ll get your food cleaner. “My advice is to save the vinegar for oil-and-vinegar salad dressing.”
You also shouldn’t feel like you need to buy the fancy produce wash you see at the grocery store. Schaffner said a lot of those washes haven’t been evaluated for their effectiveness against bacteria, let alone their effectiveness against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. If it makes you feel better and you have the money to spend,
“I suppose you could use these products,” Schaffner said. “[However] I think that money would be better spent buying a little bit more fresh produce.”