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Danger with Sanitizer Gel Use

If you say, “time for magic washing” to my five-year-old, he will diligently hold out his hands and wait for an adult to put a dab of sanitizer gel on them before he puts them together, saying “rub, rub, rub.” We have been doing this since he was two years old. I use the gel when we travel on planes and typically before eating when there isn’t access to soap and water—like when we have a picnic in a park after he’s played on the playground. A 2005 study proved that the use of sanitizer gels reduces gastrointestinal illnesses by 59 percent. But did you know that if this gel is ingested by a small child, it can cause severe alcohol poisoning?

This year, two emails are circulating, reporting on two separate incidents that Snoops.com and Urban Legends have confirmed are true. In one case, a two-year-old girl was rushed to an emergency room after sneaking into the bathroom and ingesting some sanitizer gel that was left on a counter. Her blood alcohol level reached .10 and she was declared legally drunk. In the second case, a four-year-old girl was rushed to the hospital from her preschool. No one at her Oklahoma preschool had any idea as to why the little girl’s speech was incoherent and she was lethargic. At the hospital, it was learned she had alcohol poisoning and after investigation, the preschool teacher admitted to putting sanitizer gel on her hands, which the little girl apparently licked off.

When I first read these, I thought the stories must be exaggerated. But, sadly, I am mistaken. Purell and Germ-X sanitizer gels, for instance, contain 62 percent Ethyl Alcohol (doctors compare this to 120 proof alcohol) and apparently, if a small child licks some of this, she can be poisoned. So how much can be lethal? It’s hard to say. In the Snoops report, a toxicology expert in Manhattan is quoted as saying that as few as three dabs can be lethal for a toddler. For more clarity, I turned to Mitchell Rubin, MD, DivineCaroline’s pediatric expert and director of the pediatric residency program at Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. Rubin says it isn’t so simple.

“It all depends on the specifics and (alcohol) concentrations of the gel and the body mass of the toddler. A med school professor of mine once told us that anything in excess can be toxic,” Rubin says.

So why aren’t more parents aware?

Even though these products have warning labels, people seem to treat them like hand lotions and I’ve actually visited friends’ homes where large containers of sanitizer gel are placed on tables in foyers for guests to use before entering. Sadly, in these incidents, toddlers and two-year-olds also lived there. In our attempts to combat germs and flu, we seem to have forgotten about the poison risks to children. We certainly would not leave toxic cleaners or antifreeze on counter tops for curious children to reach for. (Dr. Rubin states that isopropyl alcohol in cleaning agents like Comet and Windex are a real concern and says parents might want to consider using less toxic cleaners and over-the-counter medicines without alcohol (ethanol) in them as well.) 

And yet, we still have sanitizer gel in arms-length for our inquisitive toddlers to discover. In fact, my son’s wonderful preschool in Atlanta had sanitizer gel in the classroom (probably more for the teachers), but I recall times when children were given small amounts before snack time or before a class party when a bathroom break would have disrupted the schedule too much. I think images of this—and that of my friends who often handed out the gel when on outings—reinforced my thinking. Looking back, I’m quite lucky that my son never licked his hands, or brought a chair over to the cabinet and pulled down a bottle. From now on, sanitizer gel will be kept in the medicine cabinet, out of reach. In the age of the super bug and because I live in Europe where many children don’t vaccinate and you often find more sick children at school—I’ve decided to continue using it. But I’ll be more careful and the amount I use per dab will be much smaller now!

What are your thoughts? Did you realize how dangerous sanitizer gels can be for young children? Do you plan on continuing to use it?

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