By Amy Martyn | FairWarning
A 44-year-old man in the Southwest, seeking medical treatment after his vision suddenly deteriorated in late spring, admitted that he had been drinking hand sanitizer for a few days. Blood tests revealed he had been poisoned by methanol, an extremely toxic form of alcohol that is never supposed to be used in consumer products like hand sanitizer.
Despite treatment, he was left permanently blind.
The case was part of a disturbing trend that toxicologists in New Mexico and Arizona caught wind of beginning in May. Dr. Steven Seifert, medical director of the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center, noticed that two adults had been hospitalized after drinking hand sanitizer made with methanol.
In June, the center treated three more adults who had been poisoned by methanol, making it “absolutely clear that there was something circulating in our state,” said Seifert, who notified New Mexico’s Department of Public Health.
The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a huge spike in demand for hand sanitizer, and with it, a shortage of ethanol, which is typically used as the active ingredient in hand sanitizers. That may be leading to the use of a highly toxic substitute — methanol, or wood alcohol — in products that have been rushed onto store shelves in the United States.
The FDA has counted 17 deaths from exposure to methanol-tainted sanitizer this year, and spokesman Jeremy Kahn says the agency has received an additional 2,000 reports of exposure or injuries.
It’s a vivid example of the Food and Drug Administration’s lack of authority to crack down on dangerous over-the-counter drugs, a category that includes hand sanitizers. The FDA has responded by issuing numerous alerts about the dangers of ingesting methanol-containing sanitizers and asking manufacturers to issue recalls. But the agency lacks authority to force recalls, and some manufacturers have delayed taking action, according to warnings issued by the FDA and a FairWarning review of the agency’s database of hand sanitizers to avoid.
Despite the FDA’s warnings, methanol-tainted hand sanitizer ended up at retail outlets across the U.S., including at Dollar Tree, where it was sold as the store brand, according to the FDA.
The retail chain stopped selling it after the manufacturer recalled it and said in an email, “We continue to be committed to our customers’ safety.”
In another case, on July 1, the FDA told a Mexican company, Soluciones Cosméticas, that samples of its Bersih brand sanitizer seized at the border by customs agents were found to be contaminated with methanol. But it took another two weeks before the company agreed to pull the product from store shelves in the U.S., according to a warning letter that the FDA sent.
The agency also asked the company to recall two other brands of hand sanitizer it manufactured and sold for U.S. consumers, but if it’s done so, it hasn’t yet notified the FDA. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
This story was produced by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer, labor and environmental issues. You can sign up for their newsletter here.