Alcohol Swabs Intended to Kill Bacteria Recalled Over Bacterial Contamination

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A rash of alcohol swab recalls has led to millions of disinfecting products being pulled off store shelves.

But wait a minute. How can something that is used to kill germs harbor life-threatening bacteria?

On Jan. 11, Canadian distributor Shandex Sales Group recalled their alcohol swabs, asking wholesalers, drugstores and other retailers to stop selling the product. Although there haven't been any reports of adverse reactions related to the alcohol swabs, the recall came about after a customer raised concerns about one product's potential contamination with Bacillus cereus, according to Health Canada. Some strains of the Bacillus cereus bacterium are harmful to humans and can cause severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

A similar recall, also regarding concerns of Bacillus cereus contamination, was announced on Jan. 5 by Triad Group, a pharmaceutical products manufacturer that sells its merchandise under private labels, including CVS and Walgreens. The recall caused several store-brand alcohol prep pads, alcohol swabs and alcohol swabsticks manufactured by Triad Group to be pulled from store shelves across Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Now, one might assume that alcohol prep pads much like the wipes contained in individual square little packets that nurses use to clean an area of skin before administering a shot would be unable to harbor germs because the alcohol would kill them. Alcohol does not get rid of all bacteria , however, including some strains of Bacillus cereus.

The bacteria's presence in alcohol swabs could pose a serious health risk. The New York State Department of Health warns that "use of contaminated alcohol prep pads, alcohol swabs, and alcohol swabsticks could lead to life-threatening infections, especially in at-risk populations, including immune suppressed and surgical patients."

A Bacillus cereus contamination is especially dangerous in alcohol swabs since they are often used to disinfect an area before breaking the skin with a needle, such as for an insulin shot or flu shot , because it can allow the bacteria to jump directly into the bloodstream. To date, Triad has received one report of a non-life-threatening skin infection possibly caused by one of their recalled products.

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Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.