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N4T Investigators: Hand sanitizer demand contributing to “unusual” spike in deaths

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TUCSON (KVOA) - In the age of COVID-19, it wouldn't be unusual to use a squirt of hand sanitizer after every touch of a door or while pumping gas or handling money. That, according to many health experts, is actually a good thing to do during this pandemic but the skyrocketing demand for hand sanitizer has also brought some grave consequences.

The issue all comes down to the ingredients but it's something you'll never see listed on the label and has already cost several people their lives.

According to the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, 7 people have died this year across Arizona from ingesting hand sanitizer.

"Seven may sound small when compared to deaths from COVID-19 but seven is large when it should be zero," said Steve Dudley the Director of the Poison and Drug Information Center. 

Zero is what Dudley said is the average amount of deaths in any given normal year but 2020 is far from normal. He said people ingest hand sanitizer every year, from alcoholics trying to get a fix to children accidentally getting into it. It's nothing new but this year many hand sanitizers are actually more deadly than before.

"There's no way to know looking at the bottle," Dudley explained.

Hand sanitizers are supposed to contain variants of ethanol, basically alcohol, but in the rush to produce the products Dudley said many bottles ended up and continue to end up with methanol which is extremely toxic. 

"These patients, the severely sick ones, they are coming in, they are essentially in a coma," Dudley said.

Dudley and his team had many hand sanitizers tested for methanol.

"We had people who were sending things in from Basha's, Walgreens, some were negative some were positive. Which just shows you it was everywhere," he said.

By June, the Food and Drug Administration caught on to the issue and compiled an ever-growing list of hand sanitizers known to contain methanol. Looking through the dozens of pages the vast majority of them are produced in Mexico, Central America or China but a few were made in the United States. I reached out to several of the listed manufacturers for comment but none responded. That list, Dudley believes, is the best resource to know if you have a toxic hand sanitizer.

It can be found here.

With the holidays right around the corner, many families are likely planning to spend time around a BBQ or fire pit, Rural Metro Fire Department is worried about another recipe for disaster. 

"If you're using this [hand sanitizer] around an open flame, smoking or hot grill it can be dangerous," Rural Metro Battalion Chief John Walka said.

Chief Walka said all hand sanitizers are extremely flammable and give off vapors that could ignite a fire even if the liquid doesn't make direct contact with a flame or hot surface.

"It's a good idea to wait at least 30 seconds before going back to cooking or going near an open flame," Chief Walka said.

His team luckily hasn't responded to any such issues so far this year but if there ever was a time for it he says it would be this holiday season. 

"We are really concerned that people are using this product all the time and they really should because of COVID but we want to make sure people are aware of the flammability factor of this," Chief Walka explained.

Steve Dudley believes with the awareness now and that FDA list, the worst of the poisonings is behind us but methanol laced products continue to pop up. The FDA continues to ban known offenders and block imports of those products. Dudley urges you to keep hand sanitizers out of reach of children.

If you have a story for us to investigate send us an email at investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip-line at 520-955-4444.  

Chorus Nylander

Chorus Nylander is the Chief Investigative Reporter for News 4 Tucson. He is focused on giving the voiceless a voice and holding the powerful accountable.

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