Disinfectants in the Workplace - Essential Employees Exposures

Air Sampling Information Regarding Cleaning Agents, Disinfectants, and Sanitizers

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic on March 12, 2020, changing our lives in the process. Around the world, different mitigation strategies have been employed to slow the spread and decrease the risk of exposure to the virus at federal, regional, and state government levels. Essential employees are designated as those who perform critical operations in healthcare/public health and infrastructure fields, such as first responders; law enforcement; food & agriculture; energy; water and wastewater; transportation; public works; and critical manufacturing, etc.

Please consult your local authority for more information.

These essential employees work under stressful conditions and use chemical disinfectants, sanitizing agents, and waste treatments more frequently in order to keep surfaces clean and protect themselves and others from exposure to the virus. Applying these cleaning agents to the various surfaces may release harmful vapors and fumes and expose employees to an inhalation risk of hazardous chemicals. While workers wear personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves from exposure to the virus, it may not be suitable and effective in preventing an inhalation exposure from these chemical cleaning agents. The common cleaning and sanitizing agents used are listed below:

More Information on Select Commonly used Cleaning agents, Disinfectants, and Sanitizers

Aldehydes and Their Health Effects


Glutaraldehyde is a toxic chemical that is used as a cold sterilant to disinfect and clean heat-sensitive medical, surgical, and dental equipment. It is used in a limited number of applications, rather than as a general disinfectant. Specific applications of glutaraldehyde include its use as a disinfecting agent for respiratory therapy equipment, bronchoscopes, physical therapy whirlpool tubs, surgical instruments, anesthesia equipment parts, X-ray tabletops, dialyzers, and dialysis treatment equipment.

Short-term exposure to glutaraldehyde has been known to burn and irritate the mucous membranes and skin. Inhaling it can irritate the nose, throat, and respiratory system, resulting in coughing and wheezing. It may also cause nausea, drowsiness, dizziness, and nosebleeds. Long-term effects of glutaraldehyde result from its use as a desensitizer. Those who are desensitized show strong reactions even with a little exposure to the compound. Common responses against glutaraldehyde are asthma attacks, trouble breathing, skin allergies, eczema, itching, and rashes. It is one of the leading causes of workplace asthma.


Formaldehyde is a common indoor air pollutant that is colorless with a strong and unique odor. It is present in medical preservatives, as a component of surgical smoke, adhesives, particleboard, paints, coatings, paper, foam, etc. Workers can inhale formaldehyde in the gaseous form or adsorb it in the liquid form through the skin. Exposure to formaldehyde may result in irritation or burning of eyes, stuffy nose, and skin rashes. It is also known to cause headaches and flu-like symptoms. Chronic exposure may also result in bronchitis. It can also trigger other ailments like asthma and behave as an allergen.

Formaldehyde is one of the only VOCs regulated by the EPA. However, OSHA regulates it as a known carcinogen. Formaldehyde is also a concern in other industries such as human and animal healthcare, laboratory settings, construction sites, pulp and paper, automotive, maritime, and so on. It is also a common contaminant investigated in vapor intrusion, sick building, and other building-related illnesses.


Acetaldehyde is a volatile, flammable, and colorless liquid with a pungent, fruity odor commonly used in disinfectants. It is widely used as a chemical intermediate, principally to produce acetic acid, pyridine and pyridine bases, peracetic acid, pentaerythritol, butylene glycol, and chloral. It is used in the production of esters, particularly ethyl acetate and isobutyl acetate. It is also used in the manufacturing of dyes and aniline rubber, as a flavorant, component of paints, adhesives, coatings, etc. It is dangerous when exposed to heat or flame and can react vigorously with an oxidizing material, acid anhydrides, alcohols, ketones, phenols, halogens, isocyanates, and strong alkalides and amines. It is also incompatible with acids, bases, alcohol, ammonia, amines, phenols, ketones, and hydrogen cyanide. It polymerizes readily in the presence of trace metals (iron). Acetaldehyde can form unstable or explosive peroxides on exposure to air. It may polymerize in the presence of air, heat, acids, or bases with a potential of fire or explosion. Acetaldehyde has been found to decompose rubber products but is non-corrosive to most of the metals.

Workers in a wide range of industries from healthcare to paints and coatings can be exposed to acetaldehyde inhaling its fumes. When ingested or inhaled, acetaldehyde can irritate the eye, nose, and throat; cause conjunctivitis, coughing, central nervous system depression, eye and skin burns, dermatitis, and delayed pulmonary edema.

Acetaldehyde is a by-product of yeast production and is a naturally occurring compound in wine, bread, soy sauce, and other yeast-fermented products. It is approved for use in phenolic resins of molded containers for contact with nonacidic foods. It is exempted from residue tolerance when it is used as a fumigant for the storage of apples and strawberries.

Exposure Limits

References - all Aldehydes

Phenolic Compounds (Phenols)

Phenol is commonly used as an antiseptic and analgesic in the healthcare industry. It also is used as the primary chemical in embalming fluid for its preservation characteristics. It is more widely used for this purpose in medical embalming versus for the public in which formaldehyde is most often used. It has other uses such as in the manufacture of drugs, herbicides, synthetic resins, and cosmetics.

Common symptoms of exposure: Eye, nose, and throat irritation, anorexia, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, lassitude (weakness, exhaustion), headache, dizziness, muscle ache, pain, cardiac arrhythmia, labored breathing, shortness of breath, pulmonary edema, cyanosis, liver damage, kidney damage, skin burns, dermatitis, ochronosis, tremors, convulsions, twitching, and metabolic acidosis.

Symptoms of Skin Absorption: numbness, collapse, coma.

Symptoms of Ingestion: acute abdominal pain, sore throat, diarrhea, smoky, greenish-dark urine, and shock or collapse.

Exposure Limits