Toxic Hand Sanitizer!

Apparently, we're not supposed to drink the stuff.

A massive increase in the demand for alcohol-based hand sanitizers sparked by the COVID-19 epidemic has flooded the market with upstart brands. Authorities have identified scores of them that are unsafe. But press reports are over-hyping the results

WaPo headlines their report “FDA says at least 77 hand sanitizer products may be toxic,” which is true, and adds the ominous subhed, “Regulators say many of the products contain dangerous levels of methanol, which can lead to blindness, hospitalization and even death.”

The truth is scary enough:

Federal regulators have recalled dozens of hand sanitizers — many widely available through Walmart and other national retailers — because they contain dangerous and potentially deadly levels of wood alcohol.

Hand sanitizer demand has skyrocketed during the pandemic as Americans were urged to wash their hands often to guard against the coronavirus. That has sparked a rush of new brands onto the market. But since June, the Food and Drug Administration has identified at least 77 products — including two this week — that consumers should avoid. Many of the products’ labels say they contain ethanol (also known as ethyl alcohol) but FDA tests show that they contain methanol, or wood alcohol.

Methanol can be toxic when absorbed through the skin, the agency said in an advisory, and can cause blindness. It can be lethal if ingested.

So, a product that’s intended to be slathered onto the skin multiple times a day leeching into the skin and causing blindness is really, really bad. We should definitely recall those products and, to the extent possible, go after those putting people at the risk but lying about what’s in the bottle.

But a product that’s intended to be slathered onto the skin being lethal if ingested is less problematic. My children have been using hand sanitizer at school since they were toddlers. They have never, to the best of my knowledge, tried to drink it.

Because the products are mislabeled, consumers would not be able to tell which hand sanitizers actually contain methanol. The FDA keeps a running tally of the recalled products on its website.

The recalled products are manufactured by various companies, all in Mexico, and have been carried by such retailers as BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco and Walmart. The FDA included several types of Blumen brand hand sanitizer on the recall list and said an import alert was attached to them earlier this month to prevent them from entering the country.

At the onset of the U.S. outbreak, Americans loaded up on hand sanitizers, disinfectants and other household cleaning supplies to combat the virus. In turn, many companies shifted their production efforts to meet the heightened demand, including distilleries that pivoted to making hand sanitizer instead of alcoholic beverages. But the run on hand sanitizer also attracted new manufacturers that failed to ensure rigorous product quality.

So, again, manufacturers have a responsibility to test their products to ensure they’re safe. But why were federal regulators allowing new brands onto the market without testing them or at least demanding evidence that the companies had done their due dilligence?

It turns out, we don’t do so at all:

The FDA also advises Americans to be wary of products that claim to be “FDA-approved,” as none exist, or say they provide protection for “up to 24 hours.”

But, yes, people are drinking it and dying from it:

Since May, at least seven people have died and dozens have been hospitalized in Arizona and New Mexico after ingesting hand sanitizer containing methanol, according to state health officials. At least some of the cases were related to alcoholism, officials have said. Though hand sanitizer should not be consumed, some people have been drawn to its high alcohol content.

Rubbing alcohol, which is often dirt cheap, used to inspire the same behavior. It has been, for a century now, denatured so that people don’t try to drink it. I’m shocked that hand sanitizer isn’t as well, even if just for the tax benefits.

I’m also a bit confused as to why people, even alcoholics, are drinking hand sanitizer instead of cheap booze. I understand that people get desperate and make poor choices. But hand sanitizer is both rather hard to find and comparatively expensive.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Health
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    Here’s the website that tracks and lists these products: FDA Updates on Hand Sanitizers with Methanol

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The same has been said for years about bleach and lysol but our president said try it anyway. We are a country of morons.

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    But why were federal regulators allowing new brands onto the market without testing them or at least demanding evidence that the companies had done their due dilligence?

    Except for a few products (medical devices and drugs, for example) there isn’t any pre-market approval in the US. There are standards to which products must adhere (such as electrical safety) and if a product is found to be not in compliance it can be forced off the market. But nothing stops it from entering.

    From time to time a newspaper will buy a bunch of cheap toys off Amazon and discover the paint is full of lead or other dangerous substances, but how would they even get pulled off the market? Output from the same factory can be found from 50 different “companies”, appearing and then disappearing as soon as the negative reviews pile up.

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  4. JKB says:

    Well, “rubbing alcohol” is 70% isopropyl alcohol and is not adulterated except by water. Higher concentrations (91 and 99%) are available for processes such as cleaning electronics boards. Denatured alcohol is ethanol alcohol that has been poisoned as required by law and not subject to the taxes imposed on ethanol not poisoned to kill/maim after human consumption. The poisoning constituents is most often methanol, although you never can tell as it is not generally revealed. It is a clean burning fuel alcohol.

    On presumes they use ethanol in hand sanitizer not only because it is effective at sanitizing at a lower concentration (60-65%) but also it is safe (ish) if a child ingests it, if the adulterants used to discourage ingestion and gelatinize it are also non-toxic.

    One issue was the hurdles the government imposed for the distillers of drinking alcohol to divert their high quality ethanol to hand sanitizer. It might be a pandemic, but the bureaucrats want their “vig” regardless.

  5. JKB says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Actually, it was morons in the news media and social media, most often graduates of our most elite indoctrination centers, who could not think of any sanitizers other bleach and Lysol, and jumped to reframe what Trump said. Or even that bleach is used to sanitize water for drinking. There are several anti-viral sanitizing agents approved for internal use.

  6. Jen says:

    @JKB: Don’t gaslight us. We all heard exactly what he said, and he absolutely suggested injecting sanitizers and bleach. There was no reframing.

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  7. MarkedMan says:

    @JKB:

    Denatured alcohol is ethanol alcohol that has been poisoned as required by law and not subject to the taxes imposed on ethanol not poisoned to kill/maim after human consumption.

    This is a conspiracist level diatribe. Among many other reasons Ethyl alcohol is denatured is so it can be used where drinking alcohol is dangerous. Years ago I worked for an industrial inkjet company that sold ink and solvents in liter bottles. We sold an ethanol based product line and positioned it against our competitors as a safer alternative to their methanol based line. Of course we denatured the cleaning solvent since otherwise it was just grain alcohol and no manufacturing plant would let it in their doors. Originally, we didn’t denature the ink, because who in their right mind would drink ink? Only to get complaints that customers had been finding workers passed out drunk on the factory floor, their mouth and teeth stained black as coal.

    In what bizarre view of the world is this a “poisoning”? Sheesh.

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  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @MarkedMan: I’ve heard jokes about drinking printer ink and snorting toner over the years, but that’s a real YIKES!!! story. WA! Sheesh, indeed!

  9. Kathy says:

    I’m also a bit confused as to why people, even alcoholics, are drinking hand sanitizer instead of cheap booze.

    In normal times, I don’t know, but I’ve heard of people drinking it long before the pandemic hit.

    I’ve also heard reports from some of the prisons we supply, that prisoners often drink any hand sanitizer given them. There, at least, there are no cheap alternatives.

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB’s comments are always built on a lie. Always.

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  11. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds: And always angry. Not healthy.

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  12. Jen says:

    I’m also a bit confused as to why people, even alcoholics, are drinking hand sanitizer instead of cheap booze.

    Remember during the first part of the shutdown, when liquor stores were open as an essential business? This is why. This, and the fact that cutting alcoholics off cold-turkey could have landed some of them in the hospital due to withdrawal.

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  13. Tyrell says:

    I know a man who will run some of the sanitizer through his lawnmower engine. He says it helps clean out the gunk and carbon build-up.