New Jersey Poison & Education System issues warning regarding hand sanitizers

In the COVID-19 era, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not just a household staple, they are an everyday necessity. Since becoming part of our daily defense against coronavirus infection, these products are kept just about everywhere — from vehicles to handbags/backpacks to lunchboxes. Although hand sanitizers play an important role in preventing infection and slowing the spread of COVID-19, these products can result in potentially serious health consequences. In fact, hand sanitizers carry a potential for misuse, abuse and accidental exposure which can lead to alcohol overdose (poisoning).

As we saw early on in the pandemic, poison control centers warned of significant dangers of misusing not only hand sanitizers, but also disinfectants and cleaning products. Centers across the country reported a surge in calls related to chemical products used to prevent the spread of coronavirus infection. “As poison center staff know, storing large amounts of hand sanitizer at home can be dangerous,” says Diane Calello, MD, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Department of Emergency Medicine. “When you combine easy access to a potentially toxic product, with unsafe storage practices, and more time spent at home, dangerous health outcomes occur. Hand sanitizers have very high alcohol content, much higher than most alcoholic beverages. Swallowing or drinking hand sanitizer is never safe since this product is not meant to be ingested. If you ingest high concentrations of alcohol, you are risking your health and your life; the effects of severe alcohol overdose can be irreversible and deadly.”

Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned of two new areas of concern for consumers using hand sanitizer products: methanol and 1-propanol contamination of certain products on the market and product packaging that looks similar to common food and drink items. Currently, there are over 190 hand sanitizers listed on the FDA’s “do not use” list with the number continuing to increase. “Methanol in particular is highly toxic when ingested, even more so than the approved ingredient, ethanol. Although absorption through the skin is minimal, you should avoid buying products known to have these contaminants.”

If you suspect you’ve been exposed to a recalled hand sanitizer or have ingested any hand sanitizer product, even those without contamination, it is critical you call your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222 immediately. New Jersey residents can reach their poison control center 24/7 through the following options: Call (1-800-222-1222), Text (973-339-0702), or Chat via our website. If someone is unconscious, not breathing, hard to wake up, or having a seizure, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Those most at risk for life-threatening effects of alcohol overdose from hand sanitizer products are young children and pets who accidentally swallow more than a lick of the liquid/gel, as well as, youth and adults who intentionally drink these products to get drunk/high. Safe use and storage of these products are key safety practices in preventing poisoning injury.

Below is important information about hand sanitizers.

• Drinking hand sanitizer is never safe; it can be toxic and cause lasting and irreversible health effects. Alcohol affects children differently than it does adults. A small amount can cause devastating health effects.
• Hand sanitizers contaminated with methanol or 1-propanol are more toxic when swallowed than those containing the approved ingredient, ethanol.
• These products are only to be used on your hands, nowhere else on the body.
• There are no hand sanitizers approved by the FDA. Products that claim to be “FDA-approved” are illegal. Do not buy these products.
• Many hand sanitizers have been recalled for contamination and product packaging concerns. Some manufacturers have designed their products to look like children’s food/yogurt pouches, candies, snacks, juice/water bottles, beer cans, and vodka bottles.
• If you have young children or pets at home, keep these products up high, out of sight and reach. Do not leave hand sanitizers in easy to reach places like purses/bags, vehicles, nightstands, counters, etc. Locked up is always best.
• It is not safe for young children to use hand sanitizer by themselves; they must have adult supervision. These products should not be placed in young children’s backpacks, lunchboxes, or luggage.

If you are a New Jersey resident looking for information on COVID-19, there are four credible state public health resources available; the Coronavirus Hotline at the New Jersey Poison Control Center at 1- 800-962-1253 for medical-related information; 2-1-1 for general COVID-19 information; text NJCOVID to 898-211 to receive alerts; and visit New Jersey COVID19 Information Hub for FAQs and more.

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