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Minnesota Poison Control warns of rise in methanol exposure cases from hand sanitizers

New Mexico is reporting at least 3 deaths related to the ingestion of these products due to the presence of methanol - otherwise known as wood alcohol.

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Poison Control System is seconding the recent federal warning about the growing number of hand sanitizers that contain methanol after seeing a sharp rise in exposures. 

New Mexico is reporting at least 3 deaths related to the ingestion of these products due to the presence of methanol - otherwise known as wood alcohol. It can cause permanent blindness and is life-threatening if it’s ingested. 

Demand for hand sanitizers due to the COVID-19 pandemic has skyrocketed, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has detected methanol in more than 60 brands of sanitizer as companies rush for a piece of the business. 

“The FDA has seen a drastic increase in hand sanitizer products labeled as containing ethanol – but they are actually testing positive for methanol contamination,” explains Hennepin Healthcare emergency physician Dr. Travis Olives. 

Symptoms of methanol poisoning include:

  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Dizziness, confusion, lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Visual disturbances, such as blurred vision, light sensitivity, double vision

“While it’s important to use sanitizers for hand hygiene, it’s essential that these products are kept out of the sight and reach of young children and that adults always provide supervision during use,” said Dr. Olives. 

Dr. Elizabeth Farhat, a dermatologist with Allina Health, says the products containing methanol can also lead to a variety of symptoms including blindness, seizures and heart problems leading to death.

“The trouble with those hand sanitizers is that they contain methanol. And methanol is a toxic substance. If it is accidentally ingested it can cause severe poison and toxicity,” she said. “Look out for discoloration of the skin. The first thing would be pale skin. When it gets more severe your skin will turn blue. The next more serious side effects are things like headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness. If it gets too severe it can cause death.”

The FDA has listed more than 69 dangerous hand sanitizers including The Assured Brand containing Vitamin E and Aloe, which among the list of potentially dangerous products. We found it at multiple Dollar Tree stores in the Twin Cities, including Brooklyn Center and Maple Grove. The ingredients listed contain 70 percent of ethyl alcohol, also known as Ethanol - an ingredient the FDA also warns against.

Dr. Farhat says it’s not worth the risk.

“If you’re having issues with hand sanitizer washing your hands with soap and water is your best bet. Make sure you are washing for 20 seconds,” she said.

Here is something else to consider: hand sanitizer claiming to be approved by the FDA is misleading. No hand sanitizer is approved by the FDA.

"The agency is especially concerned with ... Products that are fraudulently marketed as 'FDA-approved' since there are no hand sanitizers approved by FDA," the FDA said in a news release.

We emailed the Dollar Tree about what we found. We are still waiting to hear back from the company, but The Dollar Tree sent the following statement to NBC affiliate WHEC:

“We are aware of the recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report regarding certain hand sanitizer product. The third party manufacturer and supplier of this product has confirmed that none of our product contains methanol or was otherwise contaminated. The third party manufacturer and supplier has now issued a formal recall of certain potentially contaminated product and our hand sanitizer was not included on this list. We and the third party manufacturer and supplier are working to clarify this matter with the FDA.”

The FDA posts a methanol-contaminated products list for consumers so they can be aware of, and immediately stop using any contaminated hand sanitizer or other products. The risk of poisoning from using hand sanitizer with methanol on skin surfaces is low; however, you should immediately call the Minnesota Poison Control System at 1-800-222-1222 with the ingestion of any hand sanitizer – whether or not it is known to contain methanol.  

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