British Columbia

Alcohol in hand sanitizers worries schools

Concerns are being raised about the safety of giving children hand sanitizer because the high alcohol level makes it potentially intoxicating and flammable.
Many brands of hand sanitizer contain more than 60 per cent alcohol, raising concerns about its misuse in schools. ((Donna McWilliam/Associated Press))

Concerns are being raised about the safety of giving children hand sanitizer because the high alcohol level makes it potentially intoxicating and flammable.

Health Canada has advised schools to consider installing sanitizer dispensers in order to fight the spread of the H1N1 flu.

But many brands contain more than 60 per cent alcohol, and a quick search of the popular video sharing website YouTube turns up numerous videos of students drinking the hand gel or lighting it on fire.

Some hand sanitizers are made with ethyl alcohol, the same type found in alcoholic drinks, but others are made with isopropyl alcohol, which can be fatal, even in small doses.

No dispensers in Vancouver schools

Vancouver School District spokesman David Weir said the board decided against installing dispensers following reports that they were being vandalized by students to obtain the product inside. That raised concerns about students ingesting the gel or using it to start fires.

"We felt that the risk associated with hand sanitizer in the schools outweighs the potential benefits and that's why we made the decision that we did," said Weir.

Hand sanitizers only work on clean hands, and for students the preferred method for preventing the spread of viruses is proper hand washing with soap, said Weir.

"We do have it in writing from our local health officer that he recommends we do not install the dispensers," said Weir.

While the school district is not banning hand sanitizers, it will confiscate the product from any student caught misusing it, said Weir.

Hand sanitizers were also banned by the Cape-Breton-Victoria Regional School Board in Nova Scotia in September over concerns they might used to start fires.

4-year-old seriously intoxicated

Lacey Butler is one parent who learned of the risks firsthand when her four-year-old daughter Halle was given a squirt of hand sanitizer with an attractive fruit scent by a teacher at school.

CBC News tracked down Butler in Oklahoma, after her email warning to parents became an internet hit of its own.

Butler's daughter actually got sick two years ago, but the recent surge in use of hand sanitizers in schools turned her old message into an internet hit once again in recent weeks.

"The teacher says she went around to all students and squirted one squirt into each students hand," said Butler.

But rather than rub it on her hands, Halle licked and swallowed the gel, likely because it smelled of fruit.

"It was like someone her size drinking something like 120 proof [alcohol]," said Butler.

Halle became lethargic and incoherent, and at first nobody could figure out what was wrong with her, and she was rushed to hospital by her father.

After quizzing the girl's classmates, the teacher learned Halle had eaten the small squirt of hand sanitizer.

She spent a day in hospital hooked up to an IV drip, seriously ill with a dangerously high blood alcohol level.

"After doing research on the internet, we found out that it only takes about three squirts of the stuff ingested to be fatal to a toddler," Butler said.

The good news is Halle has recovered with no long-term effects, said her mother.