Is Drinking Hand Sanitizer Safe or Dangerous? Side Effects & Health Risks

California health authorities worried over teens getting drunk on hand sanitizer

Care for a shot of hand sanitizer? Apparently, a growing number of American teenagers do — and the odd but deadly new habit has already landed a number of them in hospital emergency rooms in Los Angeles this month.

The new trend has alarmed local public health officials so much that they held a press conference on April 24 at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, California.

The health experts say six teenagers have shown up in two San Fernando Valley emergency rooms in the last few months with alcohol poisoning after drinking hand sanitizer. But the experts say Los Angeles teenagers have only caught on more recently — it has been a national trend for the last few years.

While there were 16 countywide cases reported to California’s Poison Control since March 1, there have been over 2,000 cases in California since 2010, Dr. Cyrus Rangan, a pediatric medical toxicologist with Children’s Hospital, told reporters at the press conference. Dr. Rangan is also director of the Los Angeles county Department of Public Health’s Toxic Epidemiology Program

But why of all things, hand sanitizers? Liquid sanitizers are cheap and accessible to underage teens, says Helen Arbogast, an injury prevention coordinator for Children’s Hospital. It contains 62-percent ethyl alcohol — which becomes 120-proof after distillation.

“That’s like drinking several shots of hard liquor,” Dr. Rangan said.

Abrogast says that teenagers are using an extraction technique to distill and purify the alcohol from the sanitizer, enhancing the potency of the alcohol. The technique is found on the Internet.

And then, of course, teenagers throughout the ages have been creative about turning household items into things they can get a buzz off: cough syrup, mouthwash and even vanilla extract. Hand sanitizers are just the latest over-the-counter product being used to get a quick high.

Dangerous trend

Although there has only been a few cases, Dr. Rangan says it could signal a dangerous trend.
“This is a rapidly emerging trend,” he said.

Dr. Bill Mallon works in the emergency room at Los Angeles County USC Medical Center. He says he has seen many young people at the hospital with alcohol poisoning after drinking disinfectants.

“It doesn’t sound appealing, but you have to remember that kids don’t have access to alcohol so they’re very creative,” Mallon told local TV station KTLA.

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