Why are we concerned about disinfectants and sanitizers?

Some disinfectants are highly toxic to humans and to our environment. Skin contact, inhalation, or accidental ingestion can cause irritation or damage to the respiratory, nervous, gastrointestinal, and/or cardiovascular systems. Harmful ingredients in most common disinfectants actually weaken the immune system making people more susceptible to illnesses, especially respiratory illnesses such as COVID!

Disinfectants are pesticides; a product claiming to disinfect must be registered by the EPA (and by DPR in California). They are considered so hazardous that it is illegal for children under 18 to use disinfectants, and adults using them must wear PPE and for most common toxic disinfectants such as Lysol or Clorox, after waiting for the indicated dwell time, disinfected surfaces must be thoroughly wiped down with water.

DID YOU KNOW: there were 45,000 calls to Poison Control due to disinfectants in 2020- which was a 20% increase from 2019. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many schools and individuals have increased their use of disinfectants. Unfortunately, our increased use of disinfectants has led to more exposure. In 2020, disinfectant exposure cases reported to U.S. Poison Control Centers increased 45% compared to the same period in 2019.2019.[1]

FACT: CDC states there is only a 1 in 10,000 chance of viral transmission via surface contact, and recommends cleaning, not disinfecting.[2]



Why do we want toxic disinfectants out of schools?

Children are the canaries in the coal mine. Exposure to chemicals has increased dramatically in the past decades…children today are the 5th generation of people exposed to synthetic carcinogens from the moment of conception.


  • Today, 1 in 2 American children suffers from a chronic illness.

  • 1 in 6 has a learning disability.

  • 1 in 8 suffers from asthma.

  • 1 in 3 is obese.

  • Childhood cancers like leukemia have increased 30% in 30 years.

  • Pediatric cancer is now the leading cause of death by disease in childhood.

  • Autism has increased 400% in 20 years and now affects 1 in 68 children (1 in 32 boys).

  • 40% more women report difficulty getting pregnant than they did 30 years ago.

    Children more at risk

    Children spend 1/3 of their time in school, which means what they are exposed to at school can have a dramatic impact on their health and well being. Toxic chemicals from cleaning products and other pesticides can and do cause serious harm to everyone’s health, especially children’s. There are safer alternatives and we can help or hinder our child’s health by the choices we make today.

    Children are even more at risk of being harmed by disinfectants because their smaller bodies are still developing and they take in more toxins through the nose mouth and skin than adults relative to body size, and young children tend to interact more with the environment- being on the floor, putting things in their mouth. School employees who use sanitizers and disinfectants regularly are also at greater risk of developing adverse health effects.

    Likely due to a lack of awareness around the hazards of disinfectants, and safer choices, the most common ones being used in schools (and in homes) are also the most toxic. Easy to find disinfectants most likely contain quaternary ammonium chloride compounds “quats” or sodium hypochlorite “bleach”- both are corrosive (not simply an irritant, they cause permanent eye and skin damage), cause and aggravate asthma (asthmagens), and are severely toxic to the environment. They are known to cause reproductive health issues and birth defects and cancer.

     Likely due to a lack of awareness around the hazards of disinfectants, and safer choices, the most common ones being used in schools (and in homes) are also the most toxic. Easy to find disinfectants most likely contain quaternary ammonium chloride compounds “quats” or sodium hypochlorite “bleach”- both are corrosive (not simply an irritant, they cause permanent eye and skin damage), cause and aggravate asthma (asthmagens), and are severely toxic to the environment. They are known to cause reproductive health issues and birth defects and cancer.


    Bleach is not better!

    Using quats is like killing a fly with a sledgehammer. The harm caused greatly outweighs any benefit.”

    SUPERBUGS! Toxic chemicals such as quats and bleach, leave harsh chemical residues on surfaces, which is as a primary factor in many allergy-related childhood diseases and ailments. In fact, chemical leftovers tend to promote biofilm development in the form of a bacteria pool on a seemingly “clean” surface like a drinking fountain.

    TO FIND OUT IF YOUR DISINFECTANT HAS QUATS look on the label for active ingredient ending in “…onium chloride”

    DID YOU KNOW? Alcohol-free hand sanitizers are often made with quats. The safest hand sanitizers are those made with alcohol and no chemical fragrances, or completely fragrance-free hypochlorous acid can be used as a safe, non-drying effective hand sanitizer.

    CLEANING IS KING (not disinfecting)

    Current CDC guidance to limit the potential spread of COVID recommends for schools to simply clean surfaces once a day with regular soap or detergent and water. Cleaning removes 99-99.9 % of bacteria and viruses that might be on a surface. [3]

    – Cleaning vs. sanitizing vs. disinfecting

    Cleaning is not the same as sanitizing or disinfecting. In fact sanitizers and disinfectants are not effective if the surface is not cleaned first. CLEANING: physically removing surface dirt/matter SANITIZING: using a product that kills a large amount of bacteria on hard surfaces (surface must be cleaned first for sanitizer to be effective) DISINFECTING: using a product that kills a larger amount of bacteria as well as viruses on hard surfaces (surface must be cleaned first for disinfectant to be effective)

    “A study found that hand hygiene was more important that clean classrooms. The study measured the levels of bacteria found on children’s hands and on highly touched surfaces in childcare classrooms. They found that the more bacteria detected on a child’s hands (i.e. how dirty they were) the more likely they were to get sick with a cold or flu. However, a child’s risk of getting sick was not associated with how much bacteria was found on the surfaces in their classrooms. Cleaner classroom surfaces with less bacteria simply made no effective difference in the number of kids getting sick.” [4]

    Did you know?

    NOT ALL SOAP IS CREATED EQUAL: Antibacterial soaps often contain the same toxic pesticide mentioned above, quats. Antibacterial soaps are unnecessary and even though the pesticide is in a smaller quantity than in disinfectants, studies show antibacterial soaps to more harm than good and are not recommended for handwashing or cleaning by the CDC nor childrens’ health organizations.


    [4] Julian TR, Pickering AJ, Leckie JO, Boehm AB. Enterococcus spp on fomites and hands indicate increased risk of respiratory illness in child care centers. Am J Infect Control. 2013;41(8):728-733. doi:10.1016/j.ajic.2012.10.013


    In general, clean, don’t disinfect!

    There is no CA state or federal requirement for schools to disinfect. Licensed childcare centers in CA do have state sanitizing and disinfecting requirements by room. [5]  If you do choose to disinfect certain high touch points, or are in a childcare center, remember the following:

    1. ANY school employee who uses a disinfectant MUST take a yearly IPM training (as required by the CA Healthy Schools Act). [6]
    2. It is ILLEGAL for a child to handle disinfectants (per federal and state regulations)
    3. For a disinfectant to be effective, the surface must be pre-cleaned
    4. You must use appropriate PPE when using disinfectants (read the label). (Some non-toxic disinfectants do not require the use of PPE)
    5. Each disinfectant has a contact time listed on the label- that is the amount of time the surface must remain wet with the disinfectant before it can be wiped off, in order for it to kill potential bacteria and viruses. (usually 4-10 minutes)
    6. Toxic disinfectants, such as those containing quats or bleach, MUST be wiped off thoroughly with water from surfaces that will have contact with food, and should be wiped off from surfaces children will be touching as quats and bleach residue can cause mild-severe skin irritation.

    [5]More information can be found at CA’s Department of Pesticide Regulation’s  website under “California School & Child Care Integrated Pest Management (IPM)”


    If you still must use a disinfectant, here is what to be aware of

    ALL employees using disinfectants (whether wipes, sprays, aerosols) MUST first take a Healthy Schools Act mandated IPM training with DPR (and it must be renewed annually). Here is a link to DPR’s School IPM trainings:

    AVOID: any RTU disinfectants with ‘DANGER’, ‘WARNING’, or “CAUTION” on the label. Look for RTU products with no signal words; avoid concentrates with DANGER.

    The EPA requires signal words listed in large, bold print, indicating how hazardous the product is. The least-hazardous products, toxicity category IV, require no signal word.

    Signal words will tell you quickly the toxicity of the product.

      • Toxicity Category I: DANGER (severe acute toxicity: fatal if swallowed, inhaled, contact with skin, causes blindness and permanent skin damage)
      • Toxicity Category II: WARNING (acute toxicity: may be fatal if swallowed, inhaled, contact with skin, causes severe eye irritation up to 21 days, and skin burns)
      • Toxicity Category III: CAUTION (acute toxicity: harmful if swallowed, inhaled, contact with skin, causes eye irritation up to 7 days, and skin irritation up to 72 hours)
      • Toxicity Category IV: (no signal word) no harmful effects with ingestion, inhalation. Maybe slight skin irritation lasting less than 72 hours. Maybe minimal eye irritation lasting less than 24 hours.


    We do not recommend the use of disinfectant wipes, as most wipes that are easy to find at the store are made with toxic quats and they are commonly misused by adults (not fully saturating the surface and not leaving the disinfectant on for the full contact time, not using proper PPE, not wiping off with water afterwards) and it is tempting to have children use them, even though they are pesticides and it is illegal for children to use them. Almost all disinfectant wipes that are easy to find in the store use quats and are highly toxic. Repeated exposure to quats has given children and adults skin rashes, eye burns, asthma, and other adverse health effects. If you want to have wipes available for cleaning, avoid disinfectant wipes and use baby wipes (ones that are non-toxic such as EO’s hand cleansing wipes), or make your own.


    EPA generally does not recommend using airborne methods to apply disinfectants. For now, the CDC recommends cleaning contaminated surfaces and hand washing, not disinfecting the air. [7][8]