London

London hospital pulls extra-strength hand sanitizer from use

The London Health Sciences Centre was forced to pull its latest batch of hand sanitizer after its manufacturer moved to a type that uses technical-grade ethanol which, while approved by Health Canada, can cause cancer and be harmful to children and pregnant or lactating women.

The hand sanitizer has been approved by Health Canada but can cause problems for pregnant and lactating women

A set of hands using a hand sanitizer dispenser. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The London Health Sciences Centre was forced to pull its latest batch of hand sanitizer after the manufacturer moved to a type that uses technical-grade ethanol which, while approved by Health Canada, can cause cancer and be harmful to children and pregnant or lactating women. 

It can also cause skin irritation. 

Usually, hand sanitizer in Canada is made with food-grade ethanol, but Health Canada approved the stronger version in mid-April because of global shortages. The government agency determined that "the increase in cancer risk resulting from both dermal and inhalation exposures when applying hand sanitizers would not be considered negligible" but that the risk is "tolerable" for the short term. 

The risk is increased in hospitals because the frequency of use is higher, and it should not be used by kids, those with broken or damaged skin, and pregnant or breastfeeding women. 

"Much of the product was immediately pulled from service," the hospital told staff in a memo, which said the new sanitizer had a different smell, causing officials to investigate. 

However, LHSC officials did not answer questions sent by CBC News about what areas of the hospital the extra-strength sanitizer was in, and whether staff and the public had access to it, or only staff. Officials also did not answer questions about when exactly the sanitizer was placed out for use, or when it was removed. 

Toxic after prolonged exposure

Both grades of ethanol can kill the coronavirus, but because of demand, there's been a global shortage of food-grade ethanol. Statistics Canada said there was a seven-fold increase in sales of hand sanitizers in mid-March, compared to sales during the same one-week period last year. 

The high demand resulted in shortages of the raw materials needed to make hand sanitizer, which led to searches for substitutes, Health Canada said. 

The technical-grade ethanol contains an impurity called acetaldehyde at much higher levels than those found in most hand sanitizers. Acetaldehyde occurs naturally, but can be toxic after prolonged exposure, according to Health Canada. 

Technical grade ethanol has acetaldehyde in concentrations of 800 to 1,000 parts per million, whereas the ethanol usually found in hand sanitizer has only 10 parts per million of acetaldehyde.  

LHSC officials told staff they contacted poison control and were told that exposure for 24 to 48 hours should not have negative effects, and that breastfeeding or pregnant women should contact their doctor if they have concerns. 

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