Minnesota health officials warn of toxic hand sanitizer ingredients

The Minnesota Department of Health is warning the public about toxic ingredients discovered in hand sanitizers.

Two unapproved chemicals, methanol and 1-propanol, have recently been found in products in place of ethyl alcohol or ethanol, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA put out the alert about 1-propanol Wednesday, saying it "is not an acceptable ingredient for hand sanitizer products marketed in the United States and can be toxic and life-threatening when ingested."

The FDA’s statement read, "Ingesting 1-propanol can cause central nervous system (CNS) depression, which can result in death. Symptoms of 1-propanol exposure can include confusion, decreased consciousness, and slowed pulse and breathing."

It comes after repeated warnings about methanol in hand sanitizers and increased calls to poison centers nationwide, including in Minnesota.

"Methanol is associated with some pretty bad sicknesses that it can cause in the human body," said Dr. Travis Olives, a toxicologist at Minnesota Poison Control System and emergency physician at Hennepin Healthcare. "Our calls do run the gamut from what we would call the ‘worried well’ all the way up through the very critically ill."

Four deaths have been reported so far due to methanol exposure, in Arizona and New Mexico.

Methanol is a chemical commonly used to create fuel and antifreeze.

Dr. Olives said you probably will not have any serious side effects from simply rubbing a methanol-contaminated hand sanitizer on your skin.

"Having said that, we don’t want it out there in the community," Dr. Olives said. "We don’t want people using it on their hands, even if we wouldn’t expect that to cause big problems."

Dr. Olives said the main concern is people ingesting products containing methanol, from those who intentionally drink hand sanitizer as an alcohol substitute to young children who accidentally swallow it.

"It can cause significant problems with vision and in really bad cases, it can actually cause a permanent blindness," Dr. Olives said.

The Minnesota Poison Control System shared data with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS showing a significant increase in calls to their center regarding unsafe exposure to hand sanitizer over the past few months.

There were nearly 100 calls in the month of July, which is almost quadruple the number received in July 2019.

Dr. Olives says the Minnesota Poison Control System has referred several callers per week to the hospital for methanol exposure.

"One of the things we worry about is these hand sanitizers will be around people’s houses for a long period of time. We don’t typically get rid of these bottles of hand sanitizer until it’s gone," Dr. Olives said. "We think this is a problem we’ll need to revisit a number of times over future months because these do tend to linger in households."

Tainted products likely will not list methanol or 1-propanol on the label, so you have to check the FDA’s list of recalled hand sanitizer to be sure yours is safe.

If you are worried about possible exposure to a tainted product, you can reach the Minnesota Poison Control System at any time by calling 1-800-222-1222. You can also get help online here.