In COVID-19 Response, ICE May Be Misusing a Common Disinfectant in Detention Facilities

Originally posted on The Medical Care Blog

The U.S. government is reportedly harming people held in immigration detention centers with its excessive use of a common disinfectant. According to reports by immigrant advocacy groups, HDQ Neutral disinfectant is being sprayed dozens of times per day in enclosed environments. This is resulting in concerning health symptoms among detained people.

This potentially egregious practice further endangers the lives of tens of thousands of migrants already imperiled by exposure to COVID-19, and adds even more urgency to calls for their release.

Framing the Issue

Disinfectants, when used properly, are one of the pillars of COVID-19 mitigation efforts. COVID-19 is thought to primarily spread through person-to-person contact. But it is well documented that the coronavirus can lurk on surfaces for hours and even several days. Public health experts therefore support enhanced cleaning and disinfection protocols to combat the spread of COVID-19.

While useful to eradicate infectious agents, many disinfectants, cleaning, and sanitizing products can pose severe health hazards. Chemical exposure via the skin or through ingestion or inhalation can be toxic and cause disease, disability, and even death. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) already reported a significant increase in calls to poison control centers between January and March 2020, compared to the same period the year before, likely due to enhanced COVID-19 cleaning efforts.

Reports of Disinfectant Misuse

On May 21, immigration advocacy groups filed a complaint regarding California’s Adelanto Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center. It alleges that employees have been using an industrial-strength disinfectant spray, HDQ Neutral, every 15 minutes in non-ventilated areas without providing detained people with protective gear. The spray is reportedly coming into contact with detained people’s eyes, mouths, skin, clothing, bedding, food, and drinking water.

Immigrants housed in Adelanto report experiencing health symptoms as a result of the continued and frequent use of the disinfectant. They include painful, burning, red, and swollen eyes, nose, and throat; blistering skin and rashes; painful breathing; coughs that produce blood; nosebleeds for extended periods of time; severe nausea; stomach pain; headaches; and fatigue.

One person detained at Adelanto remarked on June 12 that staff “us[e] a spray every five minutes in every cell,” and that people experience symptoms as a result of exposure. The accounts suggest that ICE is violating Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidance regarding the safe use of disinfectant products to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That guidance mandates that users follow product manufacturer instructions.

The Safety Data Sheet for Spartan Chemical Company’s HDQ Neutral states that the product only be used outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. Anyone exposed to the disinfectant must wear protective equipment (i.e. chemical-resistant gloves, eye protection, protective clothing). If someone inhales, swallows, or makes contact with the disinfectant with eyes or skin, they should contact a poison center or physician. The company also warns that eye contact may cause permanent damage. ICE staff may have breached all of these instructions, according to the reports emerging from Adelanto.

What Makes HDQ Neutral Dangerous?

HDQ Neutral is a disinfectant spray “for industrial and institutional use only,” according to Spartan Chemical Company’s Safety Data Sheet. Like many industrial-strength cleaning and disinfectant products, HDQ Neutral contains Alkyl C12-16 Dimethylbenzyl Ammonium Chloride: a quaternary ammonium compound (QAC) and registered pesticide. QACs have been implicated in causing a range of adverse health effects.

Studies of individuals who regularly used disinfectants containing certain QACs show that exposure is associated with higher rates of chronic respiratory conditions and decreased lung function. Exposure has also been linked to potential reproductive health issues.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) medical experts confirm that HDQ Neutral causes harms consistent with the reported complaints. This includes painful, burning and blistering skin rashes and painful, burning red and swollen eyes, nose, and throat. HDQ may also have erosive effects on the lining of various body cavities, resulting in bloody nasal discharge or coughing. Furthermore, “irritant contact dermatitis” – a skin condition due to chemical exposure – can increase a person’s likelihood of contracting an infection. Unsafe use of this common disinfectant in detention can therefore promote skin and systemic infections, including by the coronavirus.

When contacted for comment by PHR on the safety of the product, a Spartan Chemical Company spokesperson indicated that HDQ Neutral’s Safety Data Sheet adequately indicates how to safely handle and use the product. The spokesperson added that QACs have a long history of use in industrial settings. However, PHR believes that the Safety Data Sheet does not explicitly quantify the amount of product that can cause harm. Nor does it indicate what qualifies as a safe interval between uses of the product.

Reports of Disinfectant Misuse at Other Detention Centers

Adelanto is not the only ICE detention center where such practices are occurring. According to a report by Freedom for Immigrants, a non-profit dedicated to ending immigration detention, the use of toxic disinfectants  across a host of detention centers “may be exacerbating the risk of complications due to COVID-19 and weakening the respiratory systems of those exposed.” People detained at the Houston Contract Detention Facility and Florida’s Glades County Detention Center have reported similar exposure to disinfectants. Detained people with asthma, for example, have reported shortness of breath.

ICE and the GEO Group – a private company that owns and operates prisons and detention facilities – may be violating EPA protocols. This potentially blatant disregard for safety may be jeopardizing the health of all immigrants housed in U.S. detention centers.

Public health experts agree that it is not possible to ensure safe conditions in detention centers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The potentially harmful misuse of disinfectants in these facilities is yet another reminder that the release of detained immigrants is the only safe option.

ICE must use its discretionary authority to order the immediate release of all people in immigration detention to community settings. As it stands, detained immigrants’ vulnerability to infection or death – potentially exacerbated by inappropriate exposure to a common disinfectant used in detention – increases every day.

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