UNITED STATES – It’s an all too common scenario as Americans continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic: you buy hand sanitizer at the store in an effort to protect yourself and your family.
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that sanitizer hasn’t been recalled.
Even as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) sanitizer recall list tops 200, the agency is limited in its ability to actually pull products from shelves, according to a bombshell report released by FairWarning, a non-profit investigative news site, on Oct. 1.
The report reveals the FDA has counted at least 17 deaths due to tainted hand sanitizer, with poison control centers in some parts of the country reporting their sanitizer-related cases had more than doubled since COVID-19 hit the United States. It also states this “disturbing trend” includes thousands of injuries from toxic sanitizer exposure, adding that some who ingested the substances had gone permanently blind from the poison.
“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,” the FairWarning report said. “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.”
But even as deaths and hospitalizations continue to climb, the FDA can’t actually force companies to recall toxic products, meaning the burden of responsibility falls entirely to the consumer.
“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 FairWarning report said. “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 numerous FDA warnings, toxic hand sanitizer continues to end up at retail outlets across the country. One Mexican-based company took two weeks to agree to pull dangerous sanitizer from stores. The FairWarning report added that some businesses have even failed to communicate properly with the FDA over their recall plans.
The agency does not currently have a breakdown of how many problem hand sanitizers are still for sale in the U.S. compared to how many have been recalled.
As of Oct. 15 the FDA had recalled 202 toxic hand sanitizers, most of which contain potential methanol or propanol contamination. According to their report on July 20, the “agency has seen a sharp increase” in products labeled to contain ethanol, but have tested positive for methanol contamination.
“Methanol, or wood alcohol, is a substance that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested and can be life-threatening when ingested,” the FDA statement said. “The agency is aware of adults and children ingesting hand sanitizer products contaminated with methanol that has led to recent adverse events including blindness, hospitalizations and death.”
Methanol is often used to create fuel and antifreeze. The agency began reporting on the contaminations in June.
Peter Pitts, a former associate commissioner at the FDA who is now the president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, recently told NBC News that the toxic hand sanitizers ended up on store shelves in the U.S. after companies started breaking usual procedures ensuring product safety, particularly to meet current market demands.
“When you’re in a large company or a small company and you’re buying products in bulk, as sanitizer is purchased, you want to understand the provenance of that product—where it was manufactured, whether or not it’s been approved under good manufacturing standards brought by the FDA—and clearly that was simply ignored,” he said.
But while some companies are looking to cut corners, some are looking to the FDA and World Health Organization when formulating their sanitizers. One veteran-owned small business, which produces a 75% isopropyl alcohol-based sanitizer in Indianapolis, IN., recently encouraged consumers to remain vigilant during the COVID-19 crisis.
“While we know our USA made sanitizer is safe, that’s not the case with all products on the market currently,” SaniGo Business Development Manager Jordan Mendenhall said. “If you can’t find SaniGo, we would hope that any consumer would do their research before trying a new hand-rub. In this case, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.”
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