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Hand-Sanitizer Exposures Up At Pittsburgh, Philly Poison Control Centers

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A bottle of Purell hand sanitizer sits on a desk in a mostly-empty Cathedral of Learning on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health said hand sanitizer-related exposures are up more than 80 percent, compared to this time last year, at poison control centers in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the state’s two largest cities.

This may not be surprising. Nationwide there’s a shortage of hand sanitizer now that people are trying to prevent the spread of coronavirus by frequently cleaning their hands.

Pittsburgh’s center reports 75 percent of hand sanitizer-related calls involve children, the majority age five or younger.

“They almost always are either intentionally or accidentally drinking it,” said Dr. Michael Lynch, the center’s director. “Or [it’s] potentially in the eyes and causing burning.”

Most exposures are mild, as hand-sanitizer is not particularly toxic. Homemade sanitizers do run the risk of skin irritation if they are not manufactured properly.

After an exposure, the usual recommendation is to wash the area with water. If sanitizer has been ingested, eating or drinking something can help settle the stomach.

Hand-sanitizer tastes bad, which means kids usually imbibe just small amounts. On rare occasion, a child might become intoxicated. This carries risk of injury and “behavioral issues.”

“We don’t recommend inducing vomiting … it often doesn’t improve the outcomes,” said Lynch. “Alcohol of any kind is absorbed fairly readily.”

After an exposure, Lynch said people should seek medical care only in the case of consistent vomiting, breathing issues or sleepiness.

Most adults exposures are also accidental, though sometimes those with alcohol use disorder imbibe hand-sanitizer, or other substances like anti-freeze and windshield wiper fluid, to treat symptoms of withdrawal.

Lynch said he’s seen a slight uptick in these cases now that Pennsylvania’s liquor stores have been closed. People can still purchase alcoholic from bars, restaurants and distilleries.

“It’s something that we are concerned about and are on the lookout for,” he said.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.