The FDA Must Crack Down on Dangerous, Substandard Hand Sanitizer

The FDA Must Crack Down on Dangerous, Substandard Hand Sanitizer
(John McCall /South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
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As the host of a weekly political talk show on the oldest African American radio station in Mississippi, I have spent the last several months focusing on getting people who have refused the Covid-19 vaccine to reconsider their decision. Today, less than half of Mississippians are fully vaccinated. 

Vaccine hesitancy is not always connected to partisan politics; even though the state’s Republican governor has resisted mask mandates and other commonsense methods to mitigating the pandemic. Rather, vaccine opposition is often the result of indifference to government health warnings or a mistrust of authority.

But we also have to be honest that folks are right to be distrustful of the government and the pharmaceutical industries. Health care is big business, which means that when billions of dollars of profit are on the line, a patient’s best interest is sometimes overlooked.

In short, the pandemic has proven that community mistrust of medicine is a public health crisis. 

One issue that has not gotten much attention in the media, but is also connected to public health, is the problem of low-quality hand sanitizer being used to refill dispensers. Worse, it seems the government is aware of this problem, and is not taking decisive action to corral it. 

Understand, when the pandemic first struck, there was a shortage of hand sanitizers due to the panic buying that took place across the nation. We all remember those early days of Covid-19, when a bottle of hand sanitizer was worth its weight in gold. 

In order to help ensure the American people had access to hand sanitizer, and to try and slow the spread of Covid-19, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) temporarily suspended the strict rules for creating and selling hand-sanitizer. This made sense, and the government quickly reacted to put public health ahead of rigid government regulations. 

But hand-sanitizer is, in fact, a regulated medical product

Therefore, as soon as the shortage of hand-sanitizer abated, the FDA should have restored its strict guidelines to ensure that what is being sold and distributed is safe and effective. Unfortunately, it took the agency nearly a year and a half to just rescind that temporary guidance, which does not solve the problem of these products still being out in the world. I worry that if people get hurt by these sometimes-dangerous products, it could result in people shunning the use of hand-sanitizer. This would be a setback for our nation’s public health because hand sanitizers are an effective tool for curtailing bacterial infections. 

In particular, the FDA must get serious about rigid safety guidelines for the sale of bulk hand sanitizers. These bulk products are used to refill or top off the ubiquitous hand sanitizing stations that are all across the nation in stores, schools, hospitals, and countless other places where reducing germs on people’s hands is helpful for public health.

Some of these hand-sanitizing products being sold are not safe. According to Newsweek: “255 FDA-Recalled Hand Sanitizers to Beware of as COVID-19 Continues Spreading.” 

Refilling a branded hand sanitizer container with a product that is not the original product is a violation of FDA regulations and false advertising. According to CDC guidelines, “refilling or ’topping off’ containers of liquid soap and hand sanitizer has been associated with outbreaks of pathogenic bacteria.”

The concerns with these shady bulk hand-sanitizing products, is that they either do not contain enough alcohol to ensure their effectiveness, or worse, they contain high levels of toxins like benzene – which make them dangerous to human health. In fact, I learned about this issue when Yale University’s Environmental Health & Safety Department notified the campus that benzene was detected in two hand sanitizers being distributed on campus.  

As a former educator myself, I am concerned that these unsafe hand-sanitizer products may be used in schools where it could endanger children. Clearly, the FDA must get serious about curtailing the use of unsafe hand-sanitizers. After all, if people begin to worry that hand-sanitizers are dangerous, they may stop using them, and that would be a serious setback for public health. 

Ronnie Shows, a Democrat, represented Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District from 1999-2003.

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