Toxic chemical found in 77 brands of hand sanitizer

NATIONAL – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that it has identified at least 77 brands of hand sanitizers that contain dangerous levels of methanol.

In June, the FDA issued a warning about tainted hand sanitizers produced by the company, Esk Biochem. In the intervening month, the agency has added dozens of additional brands and products to that list.

Methanol, also known as ‘wood alcohol’, is a toxic substance used in the production of chemicals such as acetic acid and formaldehyde, which are subsequently used to make adhesives, solvents, and a variety of other products not intended for human consumption. Methanol can induce nausea, nerve damage, and blindness when absorbed through the skin. When ingested, it can cause kidney failure, and can be lethal even in small doses.

Because of the danger inherent to ingesting methanol, exposure poses an increased risk to young children, who may inadvertently ingest the product on their skin, and alcohol-dependent adults, who sometimes intentionally ingest similar products as an alcohol substitute.

How did this happen?

Experts believe the culprit is a combination of two factors. First, there was a sudden and steep increase in demand for hand sanitizer. As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe and hand sanitizer became a potentially live-saving product, consumers began panic-buying. People stocked these and other products, often in bulk, until whole supermarkets lay barren in the wake of our nation’s fear. In order to meet this newfound demand, it seems likely that some companies resorted to ‘cutting corners’ to catch up, resulting in unsafe manufacturing practices.

It is clear that, for some reason, manufacturers did not properly remove the methanol that naturally arises during alcohol distillation. Distillation takes time and sources in the industry have suggested that companies may have shortened that process just enough to yield a little extra product each day. Improper distillation would naturally result in the increased methanol levels of which the FDA has warned.

It is also possible that some manufacturers are using an already distilled high-methanol solvent as the base of their product, a practice which is in direct violation of FDA guidelines. Although high-methanol solvent is itself legal, as it is used in the manufacturing of products such as antifreeze and racing fuel, it is absolutely not rated for human contact.

Ignore labels, note symptoms

The FDA also reported that the offending products were mislabeled. Each listed ethanol (also known as ethyl alcohol) as an ingredient, but none listed methanol, nor printed any warning to consumers regarding the potential methanol content of the products. Unless a shopper is intimately familiar with the smell of methanol, there is no guaranteed way to determine the safety of our products without laboratory testing.

Fortunately, the FDA is keeping a running list of the tainted brands and products on its website, so a quick Google is all it takes to safety-check your purchase.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, signs of methanol poisoning can include neurological, gastrointestinal, and ophthalmologic symptoms, among others. Neurological symptoms include headache, dizziness, agitation, acute mania, amnesia, decreased level of consciousness including coma, and seizure. Gastrointestinal symptoms include nausea, vomiting, lack of an appetite, severe abdominal pain, gastrointestinal bleeding, diarrhea, liver function abnormalities, and inflammation of the pancreas. Ophthalmologic symptoms include visual disturbances, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, visual hallucinations (misty vision, skin over the eyes, snowstorm, dancing spots, flashes), partial to total loss of vision, and rarely eye pain. Kidney failure, blood in the urine, and muscle death at the cellular level have been reported in severe poisonings. Adverse health effects from methanol poisoning may not become apparent until after an asymptomatic period of 1 to 72 hours.

If you think you or your family may have been exposed to methanol via tainted hand sanitizer, contact the Mississippi Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 (the 800 number is the same nationwide).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reached out to consumers nationwide in an attempt to grasp the full impact of the situations. In a statement this week, the agency said, “Consumers who have been exposed to hand sanitizer containing methanol and are experiencing symptoms should seek immediate treatment for potential reversal of toxic effects of methanol poisoning.

FDA is aware of reports of adverse events associated with hand sanitizer products. FDA encourages health care professionals, consumers and patients to report adverse events or quality problems experienced with the use of hand sanitizers to FDA’s MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program (please provide the agency with as much information as possible to identify the product):

  • Complete and submit the report online; or
  • Download and complete the form, then submit it via fax at 1-800-FDA-0178. “

Mississippi Social News has provided the current list of offending brands (as of July 29th). It can be downloaded to your phone or computer by clicking the link below. For the most up-to-date information, visit the FDA website here.

Aleigh Farris

Aleigh Farris is a writer, performer, and small business owner from Tupelo, Mississippi. You can hear her work on the upcoming podcasts Radio Analekta and Once Shattered.

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