In an incident that sparked widespread outrage across India in late March, officials in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh sprayed hundreds of migrant workers, including women and children, with a chemical solution to sanitize them, in a misguided attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Health officials reportedly doused the group with a diluted mixture of sodium hypochlorite – a bleaching agent harmful to humans, which led to complaints of skin rashes and eye irritation. The opposition termed the instance ‘inhuman’, compelling the state government to order an investigation into the mass ‘chemical bath.’
“I don’t think the officials thought this through,” says Thomas Abraham, a professor with The University of Hong Kong, and a former consultant for the World Health Organisation (WHO) on risk communication. “Spraying people with bleach can prove to be harmful, and there is no guideline … that recommends it. This was some sort of a kneejerk reaction.”
Although spraying individuals with chemicals led to a furor in the South Asian nation owing to its potential dangers, so-called “disinfection tunnels” have sprung up in crowded public places around the world, including malls, offices, airports, railway stations and markets. Touted as mass disinfectants, these tunnels spray individuals with chemical disinfectant liquids, mists or fumes through nozzles for a few seconds, purportedly to sanitize them — though experts strongly condemn their use. The tunnels have appeared in at least 16 countries: India, Malaysia, Scotland, Albania, Argentina, Colombia, Singapore, China, Pakistan, France, Vietnam, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Mexico, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Russian President Vladimir Putin even reportedly has his own tunnel at his residence.
While U.S. visitors to Mexico are “disinfected” through these sanitizing tunnels, there is no evidence that the mechanism is currently in use within the United States. However, the situation could rapidly change with international innovators like RD Pack, an Israeli start-up, pushing for their deployment. Many American and multinational companies like Stretch Structures, Guilio Barbieri and Inflatable Design Works are also producing these systems. As countries gradually ease lockdown restrictions, their demand is on the rise — despite a stringent warning from the WHO against their potential health hazards.
“Spraying individuals with disinfectants (such as in a tunnel, cabinet, or chamber) is not recommended under any circumstances,” the WHO warned in a report on May 15. “This could be physically and psychologically harmful and would not reduce an infected person’s ability to spread the virus through droplets or contact. Moreover, spraying individuals with chlorine and other toxic chemicals could result in eye and skin irritation, bronchospasm due to inhalation, and gastrointestinal effects such as nausea and vomiting.”
Disinfection tunnels largely spray a diluted mixture of sodium hypochlorite, a chlorine compound commonly known as bleach, often used to disinfect inanimate surfaces. Known for its hazardous properties, the WHO, in a separate advisory on COVID-19, warns that spraying bleach or any other disinfectant on individuals can prove to be poisonous if ingested, and that such substances should be used only to disinfect surfaces.
Considering the effect of sodium hypochlorite on mucous membranes, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU agency focussed on infectious diseases, recommends limited use of the chemical compound even when disinfecting surfaces – only 0.05 percent for cleaning surfaces, and 0.1 percent for toilets and bathroom sinks. The Indian health ministry also cautioned against spraying sodium hypochlorite recently, stating that its inhalation can lead to irritation of mucous membranes of the nose, throat, and respiratory tract.
In addition to the health hazards that such sterilizing systems pose, they have little utility, argues Indian virologist T. Jacob John. Since COVID-19 is a respiratory disorder, disinfecting a person’s body or clothes cannot protect them from contracting the novel coronavirus, or help in containing the pathogen’s spread.
“It’s a respiratory infection, which means that you have the virus in your respiratory tract, and of course, that shows in your throat, therefore saliva, etc.,” says John. “The virus does not survive outside the body for a long time, unless it is in freezing temperatures. Disinfecting a person’s clothes or their body makes no sense.”
Disinfection tunnels have limited, if any, impact on the main modes of coronavirus transmission, adds Craig Janes, director, School of Public Health and Health Systems at Canada’s University of Waterloo. He explains that the nature of COVID-19 transmission is primarily from person-to-person, either directly, or via an object that is shared between two individuals. Measures like physical distancing and handwashing take care of these transmission risks.
“My view of these kinds of actions are that they are principally symbolic, indicating to a concerned population that ‘something is being done,’ to martial support for government or health system efforts,” says Janes. “So perhaps a psychological benefit, but I’m not sure that this benefit would outweigh the risks.”
A recent report by Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), an international not-for-profit organization focused on sustainable health care around the world, states that disinfection tunnels have little evidence to demonstrate their efficacy or safety.
“If the goal is to reduce the spread of the virus by decontaminating the exterior clothing, shoes, and skin of the general public, there is no evidence that clothes are an important vector for transmission. If the goal is to attack the virus in the airways, what is the evidence that a 20-30 second external application is efficacious and safe?” the report questions. “The World Health Organization recommends more direct and effective ways to address hand hygiene, with interventions known to be effective.”
If an infected person walks through a disinfection tunnel, he would still be infectious, as the chemicals will only disinfect the surfaces, says Gerald Keusch, a professor of medicine and international health at Boston University’s Schools of Medicine and Public Health.
“While we know that viruses can be “disinfected” from surfaces and hands, disinfectants can be harmful to health if ingested or inhaled. The underlying principle of medicine is to do no harm, and we always measure benefit against risk when approving interventions. I don’t know if this has been followed and assessed with respect to these devices,” says Keusch. “It’s a really bad idea.”
Experts warn that such tunnels may also create a false sense of security, discouraging people from adopting best practice methods like handwashing, social distancing, avoiding crowded places, and using masks to combat the spread of COVID-19.
“They may make people feel that their risk of infection has been reduced, and also that they do not have to worry about infecting others,” says Janes. “These are false assumptions, and may lead to increasing rather than reducing transmission.”