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Exploring a cheap sanitiser to fight coronavirus

April 10, 2020 11:29 IST
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'If it works, something good can come out of this tragedy for the common public good,' say Dr Prasad Gadgil and Dr Kunal Basu.

IMAGE: Greater Chennai Police Commissioner K Viswanathan pumps sanitiser on the hands of police personnel. Photograph: PTI Photo

The coronavirus pandemic has significantly damaged worldwide economic activity and is on a killing spree.

This reality horror show is slowly unfolding in front of us with no end in sight.

The killer is invisible to the naked eye and is present all around us.

How then to protect ourselves from this calamity?

Here is a rather inexpensive solution to help counter this deadly problem.

Plese note: It is extremely important to keep in mind that what is suggested here is not a medicine that can be taken orally and certainly not a panacea to cure the disease when afflicted, but a mere inexpensive and a handy tool to keep oneself safe from the virus.

Fundamentally, all the pathogens harmful for human life such as bacteria, fungi, spores and viruses are made of organic substances such as DNA, RNA, lipids or an outer protein shell.

Their constituent elements are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

It is here, a basic chemistry concept of oxidation comes handy.

In simple terms, oxidation means combustion.

In practice, combustion requires just two constituents -- combustible material and oxygen or an oxidiser -- a substance that provides oxygen.

Combustion generates mainly CO2 and water.

The reason for oxidation to occur is that the nature favors reaction of oxygen with organic substances.

Combustion can also be flameless.

Hence oxygen is the Lord Shiva of organic matter -- the pathogens.

Lord Shiva is the one among the holy trinity that oversees destruction.

We therefore need a suitable and inexpensive oxidizer -- a destroyer -- to kill the coronavirus.

This is the basic chemistry behind a solution that can be effectively employed in killing this dreaded virus.

IMAGE: Workers clean a floor at the NMMC General Hospital in Vashi, Navi Mumbai, which is being turned into a COVID-19 treatment centre. Photograph: PTI Photo

So far, a few simple and straightforward pathways have been suggested to protect against this deadly virus.

Frequent hand-washing with soap is a rather simple solution.

One needs to carefully rub hands with soap lather for at least 20 seconds and then wash hands with an ample amount of water.

Washing hands by water and soap looks simple.

However, billions of people worldwide do not have access to clean water.

Soap is a luxury to hundreds of millions poor people.

Moreover, contaminated water can and will do more harm than good.

In the summer months, scarcity of water in many parts of the world will certainly endanger lives.

IMAGE: Fire brigade personnel disinfect an area in Bhendi Bazar, south Mumbai. Photograph: PTI Photo

Another route is the use of hand sanitisers if water is not available.

Hand sanitiser is made up of 70% alcohol, 20% glycerin and 10% hydrogen peroxide.

Alcohol production demands significant amount of water whereas glycerin is derived from vegetable oils and also from propylene, a hydrocarbon gas and also a starting material to make poly-propylene.

Both these ingredients will very likely strain and badly distort the availability of water, agriculture and the economy.

Mainly due to these reasons, availability of hand sanitisers on a mega-scale at affordable prices over a long period of time can become extremely difficult to achieve and maintain.

Recently, a retired scientist from the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune stated that widespread and frequent use of hand sanitiser can be dangerous because it generates nitrates that are harmful to the soil.

IMAGE: A man passes through a disinfection tunnel installed at the APMC Market in Navi Mumbai. Photograph: PTI Photo

So far, the authorities have employed bleach for public hygiene.

Bleach is corrosive because it contains chlorine, a toxic gas.

It is harmful if it comes in contact with the skin and eyes.

It also leaves a residue that must be washed away with water.

If swallowed, it is harmful and hence it must never be sprayed on people.

It is simply unsuitable to wash hands with bleach like a sanitiser.

IMAGE: Municipal workers spray disinfectant around Bikram Chowk in Jammu. Photograph: PTI Photo

Coming back to the fundamental chemistry, to initiate flameless and spontaneous combustion, we need a substance that can give off an active form of oxygen -- atomic oxygen.

Ozone gas which has one extra atom of oxygen can supply atomic oxygen.

Indeed, atomic oxygen is routinely employed in the computer chip manufacturing industry to burn off tough polymer.

Ozone is also a much talked about gas which protects life on earth from harmful cosmic radiation that can literally fry life on earth in seconds.

It can be also made in some air cleaning machines from air and electricity.

Indeed, in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency evaluated the application of ozone for destruction of pathogens in water.

Their finding shows that ozone oxidises the protein shell of a virus and distorts it so much that the virus loses its ability to attach to the host cell.

However, application of ozone is complex, expensive and therefore not suitable for the masses.

IMAGE: Municipal workers spray disinfectant on roads in Noida. Photograph: PTI Photo

So what else can be out there that can give off much needed atomic oxygen similar to ozone to start combustion of this virus?

One such substance is hydrogen peroxide.

Hydrogen peroxide is a common household liquid which gives off atomic oxygen readily.

Hydrogen peroxide or simply called peroxide is nothing but water with an extra oxygen atom added to it!

It is manufactured worldwide in large quantities.

According to the US Center for Disease Control, a 3% peroxide solution should be able to deactivate coronavirus effectively in a few minutes.

Hydrogen peroxide is fully miscible with water.

Doctors frequently use it to sanitise wounds.

It is manufactured at concentrations ranging from 3% to 10%.

It can be an irritant if used in higher concentrations.

Peroxide is relatively inexpensive and also non-corrosive.

It can be effectively used in place of a hand sanitiser.

It can also be safely sprayed over large areas for sanitisation of public spaces.

Since peroxide is heat and light sensitive, it is usually stored in dark colored plastic bottles.

However, peroxide being an oxidiser can discolour fabric.

Households and restaurants alike can use peroxide spray to clean surfaces and also to sanitise vegetables, fruits, food and other items.

The byproduct of hydrogen peroxide is only water!

Moreover, peroxide can be gently used to sanitise the personal protective equipment of healthcare workers at the front line and in hospitals as a rapid and simple disinfectant in place of bleach.

Peroxide is being used in Hong Kong to sanitise subway trains.

Addition of a very small amount of vinegar makes peroxide far more powerful than potassium permanganate, chlorine gas and even bleach.

Vinegar is also non-toxic and cheap.

Please note: Applications of hydrogen peroxide as described above are only for external use and therefore it must NOT be swallowed, injected or ingested. Peroxide must also be safely kept away from children.

On balance, peroxide seems the most suitable option among the disinfectants available for the country for several years to come.

Being a heat and light sensitive liquid, peroxide needs to be stored in a thermos.

For billions around the world, it is unaffordable.

A novel and low cost solution to this critical need is being developed and patent protection is being applied for so that it can be mass manufactured in the country under the Made in India scheme.

IMAGE: Municipal workers disinfect a locality in the Eidgah area in Srinagar after it was declared a 'Red Zone' by the authorities after coronavirus cases were reported in the area. Photograph: PTI Photo

Then what is needed right now?

There is an immediate need for the medical/scientific community in India to quickly evaluate this solution.

The Indian Council for Medical Research and the National Institute of Virology, for instance, must quickly verify if peroxide can do the job effectively.

If proven, these professionals must come up with an acceptable formulation of a peroxide solution in water and also guidelines and safety for its use by the public.

Simultaneously, the policy makers must ensure rapid and large scale manufacturing and country-wide distribution of peroxide.

In summary, oxidation or chemical combustion of organic pathogens is an indiscriminate process and therefore must be implemented carefully.

The pathogens do not have known protective mechanism against chemical combustion.

Therefore, their mutation or evolution cannot work against oxidation.

Peroxide is a silent but deadly killer of viruses and needs to be evaluated soon.

In fact, a variety of disease causing pathogens -- including but not limited to bacteria and viruses -- can be destroyed using peroxide.

If it works, something good can come out of this tragedy for the common public good.

Such measures, however, must be combined with proper personal and public hygiene and discipline to help mitigate the threat of a coronavirus pandemic that is rapidly spreading and killing tens of thousands in its path.

Dr Prasad Gadgil is a California-based semiconductor technologist. Dr Kunal Basu is a former director grade scientist at CSIR-AMPRI, Bhopal.


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The War Against Coronavirus

The War Against Coronavirus