Federal health officials have placed an unprecedented import alert on all alcohol-based hand sanitizers imported from Mexico after more than half of the products tested over eight months last year were found to contain dangerously high levels of toxins.
The tainted products had been labeled as containing ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, but upon testing were found containing methanol, or wood alcohol, which can be toxic if absorbed through the skin and deadly if ingested, the Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday.
Overall, 84% of the samples analyzed between April and December of last year were not in compliance with the FDA’s regulations, the health agency said.
The import alert means imported hand sanitizers from Mexico will be subject to heightened FDA scrutiny, including potential shipment detention. This will attempt to stop potentially dangerous products from entering the country until the agency is able to review the products’ safety.
The FDA for months has issued alerts for hundreds of potentially toxic hand sanitizer brands. But this is the first time that the FDA has issued a countrywide import alert for any category of drug product. It comes amid a particularly challenging time for health safety due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as Judy McMeekin, FDA Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs, pointed out.
“Consumer use of hand sanitizers has increased significantly during the coronavirus pandemic, especially when soap and water are not accessible, and the availability of poor-quality products with dangerous and unacceptable ingredients will not be tolerated,” she said. “We will continue to work with our stakeholders to ensure the availability of safe products and to communicate vital information with the health and safety of U.S. consumers in mind.”
The health alert follows the National Poison Data System reporting a 57% increase in reported hand-sanitizer exposures during the first 10 days of January. Roughly 64% of the 938 cases involved children ages 5 and younger. The second highest age group affected, with nearly 100 incidents reported, involved those between 20 and 39 years of age.
“Young children who accidentally ingest these products and adolescents and adults who drink these products as an alcohol (ethanol) substitute are most at risk,” the FDA has said.
Methanol poisoning can cause organ and brain damage and can be fatal. Its symptoms include chest pain, nausea, hyperventilation, blindness and even coma.
During roughly the first three months of the pandemic, more than 100 people died in Mexico from drinking adulterated liquor that contained methanol, which cannot be smelled or tasted in drinks, The Associated Press reported in June.