4 die from drinking tainted hand sanitizer, CDC reports

A bottle of hand sanitizer.
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At least four people in the U.S. have died after drinking tainted hand sanitizer, and about a dozen more have experienced serious health effects including vision loss, according to a new report.

The report follows warnings from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about dozens of hand sanitizer products found to contain methanol, a toxic substance that can cause nausea, vomiting, permanent blindness, seizures and even death. At least some of these people who ingested the hand sanitizer did so deliberately as an alcohol substitute.

Health officials have now identified 15 adults in Arizona and New Mexico who were hospitalized for methanol poisoning between May 1 and June 30, according to the new report, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The patients ranged in age from 21 to 65, most were male and all had ingested hand sanitizer before they were hospitalized. 

Six patients experienced seizures while hospitalized. Seven patients were eventually discharged from the hospital, and of these, three developed vision loss, including near blindness. Four patients died and another four remain hospitalized.

The new report "highlights the serious adverse health events, including death, that can occur after ingesting alcohol-based hand sanitizer products containing methanol," the authors said.

People should never ingest any hand sanitizer products, the CDC said. In some cases, particularly those involving children, ingestion of hand sanitizer may be an accident. But adults with a history of alcohol use disorder may do so on purpose, the report said.

To be marketed as a hand sanitizer, a product should contain ethyl alcohol (also called ethanol), isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol) or benzalkonium chloride as the active ingredient, Live Science previously reported. However, sloppy manufacturing processes or those that start with a base that contains high levels of methanol can lead to methanol contamination of hand sanitizer products, Live Science previously reported.

Although methanol is a type of alcohol, it is extremely poisonous and is found in products such as antifreeze and racing fuel, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The body metabolizes methanol into a compound called formic acid, which is highly toxic to cells, including those of the eye, Live Science previously reported. 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, new hand sanitizer products have flooded the market. The FDA has found methanol contamination in more than 100 hand sanitizer products, many manufactured in Mexico.

People should check the FDA's website for the full list of hand sanitizer products to avoid.

Originally published on Live Science.  

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.