Poison Control Centers Are Urging People to Use At-Home COVID-19 Tests Safely—Here's How

At-home tests often contain a poisonous chemical called sodium azide.

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As Americans begin receiving their four free at-home COVID-19 tests from the government, poison control centers nationwide are warning people to be as careful as possible with those testing kits—particularly if they're in a household with small children.

The at-home tests—which are technically known as antigen tests—seem innocent enough: They each typically contain a nasal swab, an extraction vial, and a testing card. But it's the liquid in that testing vial that experts are warning about.

"The liquid in most vials (aka reagant) is poisonous," the Virginia Poison Center tweeted recently. Though the center went on to say that the liquid in the at-home testing vials is not usually enough to cause an accidental poisoning, it still urged those who are exposed to the liquid to call their poison control center for assistance.

Here, you'll find everything you need to know about safely using (and storing) your at-home COVID-19 tests—and what to do if you or someone you know comes into direct contact with the liquid.

What Is the Liquid in At-home COVID-19 Tests?

Though the liquid in at-home testing vials looks like typical saline solution, it's not—it actually contains a chemical called sodium azide, and it's used as a preservative agent, according to National Capital Poison Control (NCPC). Some of the most popular at-home COVID-19 tests on the market—BinaxNow, BD Veritor, Flowflex, and Celltrion DiaTrust COVID-19 rapid antigen tests all contain the ingredient.

The chemical isn't only found in at-home COVID-19 tests. "[It] is used for many different things, from inflating airbags to pest control to lab tests," Jamie Alan, PhD, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Health.

According to the NCPC, sodium azide is "very potent"—even in low doses, the chemical can cause "significant toxicity." Luckily, the amount of sodium azide found in at-home COVID-19 testing kits is "lower than the amount expected to cause poisoning if swallowed by an adult," the NCPC says.

What Should You Do if You’re Exposed to the Liquid?

Though the amount of sodium azide in at-home testing kits is likely not enough to cause poisoning, there are still steps to take should you, a loved one, or a child swallow the vial liquid. First: Alan says to stay calm, then call your local poison control center at 800-222-1222.

The likelier situation, according to the NCPC, is that the liquid in the vial will come into contact with skin—either by spilling it or mistaking it for another medication. That too, according to experts, warrants a call to your local poison control center.

If someone has come into contact with even a small quantity of sodium azide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says they may exhibit the following symptoms of sodium azide poisoning:

  • Clear drainage from the nose
  • Cough
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Red eyes
  • Restlessness
  • Weakness
  • Skin burns and blisters (from direct contact with skin)

According to Danelle Fisher, MD, a pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, if you believe your child (or another family member) has come into contact with sodium azide—and you've already dialed the poison control center—you'll want to wait for their specific instructions. "They will tell you exactly what to do based on how much you think your child ingested or interacted with, and the symptoms they are having," she says.

Regarding ingestion, though you may think the right thing to do is induce vomiting, Dr. Fisher says that's not always the way to go, noting that you may be advised to have the person drink plenty of milk or water. Meanwhile, direct contact with skin may be remedied by rinsing the affected area with clean water.

Storing and Disposing of At-home Test Kits

It's important to keep your at-home COVID-19 tests sealed and out of reach from children until they're ready to use, the NCPC says. Even when in use, children should not handle or play with the testing kits.

Past that, the best thing you can do to keep yourself and your family safe while administering a COVID-19 at-home test is to stay focused. Dr. Fisher recommends being aware of what's happening with your test kit and its parts throughout the testing process.

And, when it comes to disposing of your kit, you'll want to read the instructions on how to do so safely—that typically means throwing it away, sealed, in the trash (preferably in a tall trash can), not down the drain, says Alan. While there probably isn't enough sodium azide in the liquid to create a toxic gas—which is what can happen if sodium azide comes into contact with solid metals (think: a copper or lead drain pipe), according to Alan—it's better to be safe than sorry.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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