By Terry DeMio, Cincinnati Enquirer, USA Today
CINCINNATI — Be aware: That COVID-19 test kit in your home could contain a toxic substance that may be harmful to your children and you.
The substance is sodium azide, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s Drug and Poison Information Center has seen a surge in calls about exposures to the chemical since more people started self-testing for COVID-19 at home.
Fifty million U.S. households have received some version of the test kits, although it’s not clear how many contain sodium azide. The government has sent 200 million of the kits, with about 85% of initial orders filled, officials said at a White House briefing last week.
“We started getting our first exposures to these test kits around early November,” said Sheila Goertemoeller, pharmacist and clinical toxicologist for the center. “It was, really, all ages.” The calls to the local center mirror what’s been happening nationally. The Upstate New York Poison Center and West Texas Poison Center have warned of similar issues.
What is sodium azide?
Sodium azide, often used as a preservative, is a liquid reagent in several of the COVID-19 test kits, she said. Poison Control’s National Capital Poison Center said the chemical is colorless, tasteless and odorless, and it is mainly used in car airbags and as a pest control agent.
Ingesting it can cause low blood pressure, which can result in dizziness, headaches or palpitations. Exposure to it can also cause skin, eye or nostril irritation. Large amounts of exposure to sodium azide can cause severe health threats, leading to convulsions, loss of consciousness, lung injury, respiratory failure leading to death, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention notes.
“Sodium azide is a very potent poison, and ingestion of relatively low doses can cause significant toxicity,” Poison Control said. “The extraction vials do look like small squeeze bottles or eye droppers. Some people may accidentally confuse them with medications and apply the drops into their eyes or nose, which may cause irritation. People also may spill it on their skin which can cause skin irritation or chemical burns. Small children may accidentally swallow the contents of the vial or choke on the vial’s small cap.”
Several poison centers throughout the United States have reported sodium azide exposures from the COVID-19 test kits. Goertemoeller estimated there have been 200-plus reported cases from the 55 poison centers nationwide.
The Cincinnati Children’s based Drug and Poison Information Center has logged 38 cases of sodium azide exposure, with cases peaking in January, around the time that the omicron variant triggered a high number of COVID-19 cases, Goertemoeller said. Adults exposed generally have experienced mild skin irritation, which can get worse if the area isn’t washed thoroughly, she said.
Nationwide Children’s Central Ohio Poison Center in Columbus also reported seeing an “uptick” in cases, as well, a spokeswoman said. The center did not immediately have a number of cases.
“Mostly, I’ve been very worried about our young children,” Goertemoeller said.
The “good news” is that the cases reported to the Cincinnati Children’s center mostly have been minor and resolved at home, Goertemoeller said. She added that the amount of sodium azide in COVID-19 rapid tests is small.
Poison Control notes that the poisoning risk is low when these tests are used and disposed of properly.
Goertemoeller provided these safety tips:
- Store the kits in a high cabinet, preferably locked, and out of sight of children.
- For adults, read the directions carefully before using the test kits.
- When done testing, immediately wrap the contents of the kit and dispose of them out of your home.
- Check children’s backpacks for kits, in case your child’s school sent one home, and remove the kit immediately.
- If you suspect someone has been exposed, call the poison center at 800-222-1222.