Over the past year, Americans have repeatedly faced unprecedented obstacles with little-to-no preparation while navigating the pandemic. This was particularly felt in the manufacturing and distribution of essential supplies such as personal protective equipment and health hygiene products. While many of the commercial issues of the pandemic have leveled off and are on the mend, there continues to be an ongoing issue with the manufacturing and distribution of hand sanitizers that do not meet industry standards.
During the initial surge in demand, the federal government relaxed certain regulations in order to get over-the-counter products into consumers’ hands. The combination of a need for an immediate ramp-up of hand sanitizer distribution and reduced oversight led to a concerning trend of what we believe is a case of mislabeling — and unfortunately misleading — information regarding hand hygiene products. Not only does this jeopardize consumer trust in these products, but it also poses a very real health risk.
While it is admirable that local and small businesses stepped up to produce products for their communities, hastily manufactured hand sanitizer operations have resulted in lower efficacy rates, with even some reports of products being made with dangerous ingredients. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration has currently identified 230 hand sanitizer products, marketed last year, as being unsafe or ineffective.
The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deserve recognition for their ongoing efforts to keep the American people safe. But the fight against this virus is far from over, and underregulated hand sanitizer production and distribution will only prolong this public health crisis.
The CDC requires hand sanitizer to have at least 60 percent ethanol (ethyl alcohol). At the same time, the FDA has observed a sharp increase in those that also contain methanol — an ingredient that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin and can be fatal when ingested. Sadly, four people in Arizona died due to ingesting hand sanitizer containing methanol. In response to this tragedy, Dr. Steve Dudley, the director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, publicly noted, “The flip side is that supplies can’t keep up with demand, so what we think is happening is we have all these other manufacturers who are coming in and saying, ‘Oh there’s money to be made here, we can produce hand sanitizer.’ And they’re not properly distilling it or properly producing it.” Our regulators must do more to prevent this from happening.
Businesses also began buying hand sanitizer in “bulk” packaging (e.g., gallon bottles) and pouring it into dispensers for consumer use. Mixing differently manufactured products poses a safety issue because it means consumers are being exposed to products that don’t necessarily meet FDA safety and efficacy standards. Indeed, refilling a branded hand sanitizer container with a product that is not the original product is a violation of FDA regulations and is false advertising. With safe, quality products back on the shelves, there is no excuse to cut corners when it comes to public health.
For more than a century, the National Consumers League has fought for access to quality products, honest labeling, and safe, effective medicines for American consumers and workers. And leaving this growing issue alone would be a disservice to the many people NCL has worked so hard to protect. This is why NCL recently sent a letter to the FDA and the CDC, urging them to enforce the law and hold accountable those businesses engaged in the production and distribution of poorly manufactured and dangerous hand sanitizer products.
As the country starts to reopen, it is critical that businesses, schools and workplaces provide only the highest quality of hand sanitizer products. They must also ensure proper restocking of their supplies, rather than simply refilling them with lower quality, mislabeled products, and ultimately providing consumers with a faulty product. Defeating this incessant virus requires a united approach, and even something as small as properly sanitizing your hands can make a difference.
Sally Greenberg is the executive director of National Consumers League.
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