MADISON — As the use of hand sanitizers has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, so has the number of calls to poison centers related to possible toxic alcohol exposures.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the Wisconsin Poison Center put out a warning Tuesday that some hand sanitizers can contain a variety of chemicals and alcohols that can be dangerous, possibly even deadly.
The agencies indicated there has been a dramatic increase in hand sanitizer products, labeled to contain ethanol (also known as ethyl alcohol) but that have actually tested positive for methanol contamination. Methanol, or wood alcohol, is a substance that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested, and can be life-threatening. New Mexico Poison Control recently reported three deaths and one case of permanent blindness due to ingestion of methanol-contaminated hand 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," interim state health officer Stephanie Smiley said in a news release. "If you must use hand sanitizer, be sure to avoid any products on the The Food and Drug Administration's list of hand sanitizers that have been recalled.”
The FDA list can be found here: tinyurl.com/y2jvkscw.
Dr. David Gummin, medical director of the Wisconsin Poison Center, advised anyone who uses hand sanitizers to use only as directed on hands, adding that 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.
Poisoning concern is even an issue 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, the agencies said.
If anyone accidentally swallows hand sanitizer, residents are advised to call the Wisconsin Poison Center right away and not to wait for symptoms to develop. The center can be reached around the clock at 800-222-1222.