Toxic Methanol in Hand Sanitizers: Poisonings Continue

Aug. 17, 2020 — As the FDA’s warning list about dangerous hand sanitizers containing methanol grows, another troubling trend has emerged. Some people are drinking the sanitizers to get an alcohol high. Others have believed a rumor, circulated online, that drinking the highly potent and toxic alcohol can disinfect the body, protecting them from COVID-19 infection.

Drinking hand sanitizers to get a buzz is nothing new for people with a substance use disorder, says Maureen Roland, a registered nurse and managing director of the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center at Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix.

The FDA warned the public in July that “methanol is not an acceptable ingredient for hand sanitizers and must not be used due to its toxic effects. FDA’s investigation of methanol in certain hand sanitizers is ongoing.”

But as more of the methanol-based sanitizers came on the market, Roland and her colleagues began noticing more cases of methanol ingestion beginning in May.

Roland and her colleagues alerted the state health department, who brought in the CDC and FDA to investigate. In the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Aug. 14, public health officials from the CDC, Arizona, and elsewhere report on the first 15 cases seen in Arizona and New Mexico. The poisonings are continuing there, Roland says, despite ongoing warnings.

The poisonings aren’t limited to the Southwest. Across the U.S., 1,585 exposures to hand sanitizer containing methanol have been reported from May to August, says Heba Hashem, a spokesperson for the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The problem is also occurring globally. Researchers from Australia, Japan, Bangladesh, and other countries recently gathered COVID-19 rumors from what they term the “infodemic.” They scoured online platforms, Facebook, Twitter, and online newspapers to find the rumors and conspiracy theories circulating about COVID-19.

A popular myth was that drinking highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the virus. After the suggestion became widespread, the researchers found that about 800 people have died after drinking methanol, 60 developed complete blindness, and about 5,900 have been hospitalized, mainly in Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and India.

“The source of the rumor could not be identified,” says study leader Md. Saiful Islam, a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “However, during the end of February and early March, 2020, the rumor, ‘gurgling or drinking alcoholic beverages would disinfect the mouth or inside the body and prevent the infection by killing the virus’ was circulating in Iran,” he says.

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