State Poison Center, health officials issue warning about certain hand sanitizers

Using hand sanitizer may be giving you a false sense of security

MADISON, Wis. — With more people using hand sanitizer during the coronavirus pandemic, calls to poison centers concerning toxic alcohol exposure are increasing.

Hand sanitizer produced at home or in other countries can contain a variety of chemicals and alcohols that can be dangerous, if not deadly, according to a release by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The DHS said there has been a “dramatic increase” in the number of products labeled to contain ethanol, but test positive for methanol contamination. Methanol, or wood alcohol, can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested, the release said.

New Mexico Poison Control recently reported three deaths and one case of permanent blindness due to the ingestion of methanol contaminated sanitizers.

“Hand sanitizer is great to use when soap and water aren’t available, but frequent, thorough handwashing is the best way to prevent spreading viruses like COVID-19,” said Stephanie Smiley, interim State Health Officer for Wisconsin.

The Food and Drug Administration has created a list of hand sanitizers that have been recalled.  As of Tuesday morning, there were 115 entries on the list.

Doctor David Gummin, Medical Director of the Wisconsin Poison Center, shared this advice for anyone who uses hand sanitizers:

  • Use only as directed on hands. The accidental ingestion of even a relatively small amount of methanol by children may pose a serious poisoning risk. Symptoms of methanol poisoning are nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, permanent blindness, seizures, coma, permanent damage to the nervous system or death.
  • There is concern for poisoning related to the most common ingredient in hand sanitizers, ethyl alcohol. These products typically contain over 60% ethyl alcohol, a stronger concentration than most hard liquors. A child ingesting any more than a lick or a taste of this product could be at risk for alcohol poisoning. Ingestion of as little as an ounce or two could be fatal in a small child.
  • If you or a child accidentally swallows hand sanitizer, call the Wisconsin Poison Center right away. Don’t wait for symptoms to develop. Call the Poison Center at 800-222-1222 anytime day or night.