The Food and Drug Administration has expanded the list of hand sanitizers — some sold at Walmart, Costco and other national chains — being recalled to at least 75 recently, saying toxic levels of wood alcohol in them can cause injury or death.
The FDA said that there has been an increase in hand sanitizers that are labeled to contain ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, but have tested positive for methanol, or wood alcohol. If methanol is absorbed through the skin, it can cause blindness and hospitalizations, or death if ingested.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials have continuously urged Americans to wash their hands for 20 seconds at a time or to use hand sanitizer to protect against exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease. The demand for hand sanitizer has surged and questionable new brands have made their way to store shelves across the United States, most imported from Mexico.
"Unfortunately, there are some companies taking advantage of the increased usage of hand sanitizer during the coronavirus pandemic and putting lives at risk by selling products with dangerous and unacceptable ingredients. Consumers and health care providers should not use methanol-containing hand sanitizers," FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn said in a statement July 2.
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Peter Pitts, former FDA associate commissioner and president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, said selling these hand sanitizers is "like selling an unapproved drug."
The products wind up on store shelves because companies are skirting around the usual steps that ensure product safety, he said.
"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.
BJ's wholesale club recently recalled Blumen Clear Advanced Hand Sanitizer with 70 percent alcohol due to its methanol content. "Out of an abundance of caution, 4E Brands requests that members discontinue the use of this product immediately and dispose of it in accordance with local regulations," the company said in a statement.
Costco also recalled Blumen hand sanitizer in May and Walmart in July.
The FDA first warned about nine products made in Mexico in June. Since then, dozens more have been added to the list.
It's unclear how the products are landing in U.S. stores, but there may be scores of new hand sanitizer brands since the beginning of the pandemic.
"We are very much aware of this situation and we are on the lookout," Chris Krese, senior vice president, marketing, communications & media relations at National Association of Chain Drug Stores, wrote to NBC News in an email.
The FDA list an import alert on a number of hand sanitizers to stop the products from entering the U.S., including:
- Blumen products
- Klar and Danver Instant Hand Sanitizer (labeled with Greenbrier International)
- Modesa Instant Hand Sanitizer Moisturizers and Vitamin E
- Hello Kitty by Sanrio Hand Sanitizer
- Assured Aloe
For the complete list, go to FDA hand sanitizer updates.
Ten deaths and dozens of hospitalizations in Arizona and New Mexico are believed to be linked to methanol in hand sanitizers. The cases are also associated with alcohol use disorder.
In two of the Arizona cases, patients had purchased hand sanitizers from a grocery store, but the brand is unknown. Most of the cases are clustered in Apache County, Arizona, a Native American reservation that prohibits alcohol. For years, people have been drinking hand sanitizer for its alcohol content, however, because there has been a rise in homemade versions, people are getting sick, Steven Dudley, director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, said.
"All of a sudden somebody switches up the ingredients and you have no idea. You're not going to know, you're going to continue your habits, not knowing that it's no more unsafe now. And that's exactly what happened," said Dudley.
Similar cases have been reported in New Mexico, and in all but one of the cases, it's unclear if the hazardous hand sanitizer was store-bought or homemade.
"We're up to six deaths now, and two people with permanent blindness and awaiting outcomes on another one or two patients," said Dr. Brandon Warrick, assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
Both experts advise consumers to check the FDA's regularly updated list for dangerous hand sanitizers before buying an unknown brand.