The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has identified at least 77 hand sanitizers that contain dangerous levels of methanol, a toxic substance that can cause nausea, nerve damage and blindness when absorbed through the skin and death, if ingested.
In June, the FDA issued a warning about nine tainted hand sanitizers made by a company called Eskbiochem, Live Science previously reported, but since then, the agency has flagged dozens of additional products that contain dangerous levels of methanol, also known as wood alcohol, The Washington Post reported. The agency keeps a running list of these sanitizers on its website and notes that the products pose a particular risk to young children, who may accidentally ingest them, and for adults who purposefully drink the products as an alcohol substitute.
But how are so many products becoming tainted with methanol in the first place? Most likely, the surge stems from sloppy manufacturing processes, wherein producers may not properly remove methanol that naturally arises during alcohol distillation, or they may violate FDA guidelines by starting with an already distilled high-methanol solvent as their base, sources told Live Science. (Methanol distillates are a common ingredient in antifreeze and racing fuel.)
And unfortunately, while experts can smell the difference between methanol and ethanol, most consumers won’t be able to detect this difference. And “methanol” will not be listed in the ingredients on the bottle. Instead, people should check the FDA’s list of recalled sanitizer products to make sure theirs is not on it, and avoid unknown brands, experts told Live Science.
Related: Hand sanitizer sold out? Here’s how to make your own.
Methanol can be lethal at fairly low doses: Ingestion of as little as 2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) of methanol can be deadly for a child, and 2 to 8 ounces (60 to 240 milliliters) can be deadly for an adult, Live Science previously reported. Even if only applied to the skin, methanol can be absorbed and cause severe illness and nerve damage, Dr. William Banner, Medical Director of the Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information and a past president of the American Association of Poison Control Centers, told Live Science.
Topical methanol can be particularly dangerous for children, who have a greater ratio of skin surface area to body weight as compared with adults, Banner added. That said, consumers would likely need to apply the product repeatedly (as one does with hand sanitizer) to absorb a dose high enough to become poisoned, he said.