TORONTO -- Canadian poison centres experienced spikes in calls related chemical exposures from hand sanitizers and disinfectants during the early days of the pandemic, according to the latest data from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The report, released Wednesday, suggests Canada’s five nationwide poison centres experienced about a 40 per cent increase in calls related to hand sanitizer and disinfectants in February compared to the same time a year prior. These spikes only increased as Canada headed into the height of the pandemic in March, April, May and June.

The report shows calls peaked during the week of March 22, shortly after the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

“The reason(s) for this increase are unclear, but may be related to an increased use of cleaning products in an attempt to mitigate risk of infection from COVID-19,” the PHAC report states.

Meanwhile, calls regarding exposure to bleaches, chlorine gas and chloramine gas each decreased in February compared to a year prior, but also experienced spikes in the spring.

The results are consistent with a similar report out of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which saw significant spikes in daily exposures to cleaners and disinfectants beginning in mid-March.

The PHAC suggests the spikes could be related to how hand sanitizers and disinfectants were not readily available during the early days of the pandemic, leading some people to create their own mixtures. The agency also hypothesizes that with schools and daycares closed, young children at home could also “create greater opportunity for exposure,” though the report doesn’t indicate a large increase in calls among people aged 19 and younger.

These numbers may not represent the whole picture, however, as the PHAC notes poison centres are not available nationwide and many Canadians will not contact these centres for treatment options. 

“Our analyses are based on calls made to Canadian poison centres, and likely only represent a small portion of total exposures, as some will self-manage at home while others will directly seek in-person medical attention,” the report states.