Public must be warned that ‘swallowing hand sanitiser can kill’

More needs to be done to protect people from the dangers of ingesting disinfectant, one expert has warned.

The public should be warned that hand sanitizer can be deadly if swallowed, said University of Oxford researcher Georgia Richards, as the number of accidental poisoning cases continues to rise.

Her analysis of two deaths identified in coroner’s reports and published in the journal BMJ Evidence Based Medicine says the public is largely unaware of the dangers of disinfectant.

One case involved a retiree who accidentally swallowed alcohol-based hand sanitizer foam, while another involved a young woman who was being held in a psychiatric ward.

She also points to a 61% increase in poisonings from alcohol-based hand sanitizers reported to the National Poisons Information Service (NPIS) in the UK, from 155 between January and September 2019 to 398 between January and September 2020.

Two children in Australia and the US were also accidentally poisoned by home disinfectant during the pandemic, she writes.

“The volume of these products now found in homes, hospitals, schools, workplaces and elsewhere may be cause for concern,” she said.

“Warnings about the toxicity and lethality of intentionally or unintentionally ingesting alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not widely circulated.”

Ms. Richards describes two pre-pandemic deaths in NHS hospital trust from ingestion, the first being a young woman held in a psychiatric ward and given an antidepressant.

She was found dead three days later in her hospital bed with a tray of hand sanitizing gel next to her.

The gel was easily accessible to patients on the ward from a communal dispenser, and patients were allowed to fill cups or other containers to keep in their room.

A high level of alcohol in her blood was found and her death was attributed to “ingestion of alcohol and (antidepressant) venlafaxine” by the coroner, who said the combination had suppressed her breathing.

The Department of Health responded to the coroner’s report outlining national guidelines and strategies to prevent suicides.

But no specific actions have been taken or suggested by the Department of Health, Ms. Richards said, and it is difficult to trace what steps have been taken by the trust.

The second case involved a 76-year-old man who accidentally swallowed alcohol-based hand sanitizer foam, which was attached to the foot of his hospital bed.

John Haughey, 76, is known to have drunk over half a liter of the gel in 2015 while in a confused state on the Hull Royal Infirmary.

The substance contained 75% alcohol, which is equivalent to consuming a liter of gin.

Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust admitted in 2017 that it had not achieved the standard of care it required, but had since taken “firm action”.

It agreed to pay undisclosed five-figure damages to Mr. Haughey’s family.

Following an inquest, Professor Paul Marks, the Hull coroner, wrote to the NHS England general manager to warn that similar deaths could occur if changes were not made.

In his response to the medical examiner in 2017, former NHS England medical director Professor Sir Bruce Keogh said organizations had already received “important guidelines” underlining the need for risk assessment when gels were used around vulnerable patients.

However, he said that “the persistence of these problems” meant that regulators were considering further measures, including the introduction of dispensers that limit the amount of gel released into NHS settings.

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