The FDA announced this week that it had identified hand sanitizers containing 1-propanol, a poisonous form of alcohol not yet seen in contaminated products. If ingested, it can cause confusion, unconsciousness, slowed pulse and breathing, and even death.
The ever-growing list of unsafe “not to use” hand sanitizers now includes 157 products. You can see the full list of dangerous products here on the FDA website. Below is a sample of some hazardous product labels.
Most of the products on the list are dangerous because they contain – or are associated with products containing – toxic methanol, which the FDA has been warning about since June. It appears that as the pandemic intensified and the demand for hand sanitizers gradually increased, companies began to flood the market with low-quality and fraudulent products. While the FDA points out that consumers are Advised to use hand sanitizers when soap and water are not available as part of good hand hygiene, the agency says consumers should be careful to use safe and legitimate products.
The main toxic component of hazardous products, methanol, is a type of alcohol often referred to as “wood alcohol” and associated with poorly distilled liquor. Drinking even small amounts can cause blindness and death. This is of particular concern to people with alcohol use disorders, at-risk teens, and curious young children who might be tempted to try drinking hand sanitizers. But methanol can also pose risks if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Both routes can cause systemic toxic effects, such as impaired vision, in sufficiently large doses.
According to the FDA, states are increasingly identifying cases in which people have become seriously ill or permanently blind or have died after ingesting hand sanitizers that contain methanol.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study of 15 of these cases. Of the 15 people poisoned by disinfectants containing methanol, four have died, three have been diagnosed with vision loss and four have remained in hospital at the time of publication. The other four were discharged from the hospital without complications. The poisonings only occurred between May 1 and June 30, and researchers only looked at cases in New Mexico and Arizona. The researchers note that other states are likely seeing similar cases.
The newly identified toxic contaminant, 1-propanol (aka propanol, propyl alcohol, n-propanol) has the chemical formula CH3CH2CH2OH (C3H8O). It is made in small quantities during fermentation and is used as an industrial solvent. It should not be confused with isopropanol (aka 2-propanol, isopropyl alcohol) which has the similar formula: CH3CHOHCH3 (C3H8O). Disinfectants containing isopropanol are safe and effective, as are products containing ethanol (aka ethyl alcohol, C2H6O), at concentrations greater than 60 percent.
Like ethanol found in alcoholic beverages, 1-propanol has a depressive effect on the central nervous system. However, animal studies suggest that the effects of 1-propanol on the nervous system are two to four times stronger. When consumed, it can cause confusion, decreased consciousness, and slowed pulse and breathing that can lead to death, the FDA warns. Exposure of the skin and eyes can also cause irritation and, in rare cases, allergic reactions.
The FDA has found 1-propanol contaminating four products manufactured by Harmonic Nature S of RL of MI in Mexico. 1-Propanol “is not an acceptable ingredient in hand sanitizer products marketed in the United States and can be toxic and fatal when ingested,” the FDA noted in its warning. The agency recommended a recall.
As in previous warnings, the FDA recommends that consumers immediately stop using any of the products listed and dispose of them as hazardous waste (do not flush the products down the drain). Anyone showing symptoms of poisoning should seek immediate medical attention.