As many as six California teenagers were hospitalized with alcohol poisoning last month, and two last weekend alone, from drinking hand sanitizer.
Coming on the heels of cough medicine, hand sanitizer is the latest in a string of household products used to induce intoxication, and it has public health officials worried, as a few squirts of hand sanitizer could equal a couple of shots of hard liquor.
“This is a rapidly emerging trend,” Dr. Cyrus Rangan, medical toxicology consultant for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said in a news conference today.
About 2,600 cases have been reported in California since 2010, but it’s become a national problem.
“It’s not just localized to us,” Helen Arbogast, an injury prevention coordinator in the trauma program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, told ABC News today. “Since 2009 we can see on YouTube it’s in all regions of the country. We see it in the South, in the Midwest, in the East.”
Liquid hand sanitizer is 62 to 65 percent ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, the main ingredient in beer, wine and spirits, making it 120-proof. To compare, a bottle of vodka is 80-proof.
“A few swallows is all it takes to get a person to get the intoxicated effects of alcohol,” Rangan said.
Doctors said ingesting hand sanitizer can produce the same side effects as consuming large amounts of alcohol – slurred speech, unresponsiveness, possibly falling into a coma state.
Rangan warned that long-term use could lead to brain, liver and kidney damage.
Teenagers use salt to break up the alcohol from the sanitizer to get a more powerful dose. These distillation instructions can be found on the Internet in tutorial videos that describe in detail how to do it. Other troubling videos have surfaced online showing kids laughing as they purposely ingested sanitizer, many boasting of fulfilling a dare.
“Methods to distill it can be found through friends and the Internet, but straight ingestion of the product without distillation is also common,” Rangan said in a news release.
Dr. Sean Nordt, director of toxicology at the USC Los Angeles County Emergency Department, told ABC News it used to get reports of children accidentally consuming small amounts of hand sanitizer, but now the trend is toward purposeful ingestion by those who cannot purchase or obtain alcohol legally.
“”We get worried about children getting into these, but it is different from an adolescent who is trying to drink half a bottle to get drunk,” said Nordt.
And it’s a tough problem to combat, as hand sanitizer is inexpensive and seems to be available at the entrance of every door. Young people can buy pocket-size bottles, which can be the equivalent of two-three shots of hard liquor, or huge tubs at most markets and stores.
Arbogast said foam hand sanitizer was a safer option to keep around the house, but “any hand sanitizer will be at risk for alcohol poisoning, as the foam type is still 62 percent ethyl alcohol,” she told today’s news conference.
Rangan cautioned parents to treat hand sanitizers “like we treat any medication in the home as far as safety is concerned. Keep it out of reach, out of sight, out of mind when not in use.”
Nordt said he hoped parents and store clerks would become more vigilant and monitor the sales of hand sanitizers.
“”Most stores will sell it to an adolescent without thinking twice,” Nordt told ABC News. “Maybe now they will.”