Maybe, don’t know: Do hand sanitizers cut down on illness?

My first reaction to any food safety claim, policy or recommendation is, are fewer people going to barf?

Which greeting is the cleanest?

I usually don’t get an answer.

Because it’s really hard to associate policy with rates of barfing.

A couple of weeks ago, Karen Weintraub of The New York Times wrote: With the recent increase in use of sanitizers (hand lotions, wipes for supermarket carts, etc.) has there been any real impact on transmission of colds, flu or other diseases?

The short answer is no one knows, because no one has studied whether hand sanitizers have cut down on the number of infectious diseases among the public at large.

On a personal level, good hand hygiene clearly can make a difference in health. A 2008 study in The American Journal of Public Health concluded that improvements in hand hygiene, regardless of how the participants cleaned their hands, cut gastrointestinal diseases by 31 percent, and respiratory infections by 21 percent.

The key to stopping disease is breaking the chain that allows pathogens to be transmitted from person to person. Either hand washing or sanitizing can do that.

Sally Bloomfield, an expert in hand hygiene and an honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said she always carries hand sanitizer with her when she travels. “London airport bathrooms are usually fine because they are well designed to make sure we wash our hands properly — and dry them properly,” she said, but some train “loos” leave something to be desired.

Grocery carts can be particularly risky points of transmission. Someone grabbing chicken or meat can leak the juices onto a cart and their hands, and then continue to push the cart around, transmitting pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli onto the handle. The next person who handles the cart, or the next child who sits in the top of the wagon, can then pick up the bugs.

“If you can wipe down the handle bars on the shopping cart with an alcohol-containing preparation, that’s probably a good idea,” said Dr. Cody Meissner, chief of the division of pediatric infectious disease at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

That said, Dr. Meissner and others cautioned against germaphobia. Every surface around us is coated in bacteria and other microbes, the vast majority of which are neutral or beneficial, said Liz Scott, chairwoman of the department of public health at Simmons College in Boston.

“We really need to target our hygiene practices,” she said, focusing on likely chains of transmission. That means washing your hands when you get back from the grocery store, public transit or any other public place, said Dr. Scott, who also admits to avoiding handshakes whenever possible, especially during flu season.

Fist bump.

(The pic, above left, is from a TV commercial Dettol shot at Sorenne’s school – she’s one of the blurred out kids, second row, far right).

With all the dirt and the grease and the gunk: Handwashing better than sanitizers in food service

Hands can be a vector for transmitting pathogenic microorganisms to foodstuffs and drinks, and to the mouths of susceptible hosts.

handwashing.loadsHand washing is the primary barrier to prevent transmission of enteric pathogens via cross-contamination from infected persons. Conventional hand washing involves the use of water, soap, and friction to remove dirt and microorganisms. The availability of hand sanitizing products for use when water and soap are unavailable has increased in recent years. The aim of this systematic review was to collate scientific information on the efficacy of hand sanitizers compared with washing hands with soap and water for the removal of foodborne pathogens from the hands of food handlers.

An extensive literature search was carried out using three electronic databases: Web of Science, Scopus, and PubMed. Twenty-eight scientific publications were ultimately included in the review. Analysis of this literature revealed various limitations in the scientific information owing to the absence of a standardized protocol for evaluating the efficacy of hand products and variation in experimental conditions. However, despite conflicting results, scientific evidence seems to support the historical skepticism about the use of waterless hand sanitizers in food preparation settings.

Water and soap appear to be more effective than waterless products for removal of soil and microorganisms from hands. Alcohol-based products achieve rapid and effective inactivation of various bacteria, but their efficacy is generally lower against nonenveloped viruses. The presence of food debris significantly affects the microbial inactivation rate of hand sanitizers.

Efficacy of instant hand sanitizers against foodborne pathogens compared with hand washing with soap and water in food preparation settings: A systematic review

Journal of Food Protection®, Number 6, June 2016, pp. 896-1055, pp. 1040-1054(15)

Foddai, Antonio C. G.; Grant, Irene R.; Dean, Moira

Blame kiwis: US teens drink hand sanitizer, may be worse in Sweden

With laws prohibiting minors from legally purchasing alcoholic beverages, many teens are finding creative ways to get a buzz from products they can find right at home. In fact, since 2010, U.S. poison control centers have seen a nearly four-fold increase in calls related to minors ingesting hand sanitizer as a way to get drunk. And according to Vice, this may be an even bigger problem in Sweden.

hand-sanitizerVice reported that this disturbing trend has forced Swedish pharmacists to remove hand sanitizers from store shelves and “restrict it to behind-the-counter sales.” Apparently, police officers first asked pharmacists in the Värmland region to do so after they noticed an uptick in teens getting sick from alcohol-based products. Several emergency calls made on New Years Eve involved people under the age of 20 — the legal age to purchase alcohol in Sweden  —  who said that they had drunk “alcogels,” a police spokesman told The Local.

The trend originated in neither the U.S. nor Sweden but in New Zealand, with the help of social broadcasting channels like YouTube, CNN reported. Swedish police officials told public broadcaster Swedish Radio that there are videos of teens are mixing hand sanitizers with orange juice to essentially make knock-off screwdrivers.

It’s commonly known that alcohol can kill germs, which is why it’s present in many popular hygiene and cleaning products; beyond hand sanitizer, a product that contains 60 percent alcohol, it can be found in mouthwash and even Windex.

4th-graders in New York planned to kill teacher with hand sanitizer

Law enforcement officials say a group of fourth-grade students allegedly talked about trying to kill their teacher with hand sanitizer because she was mean to them, but concerned parents and a school board member foiled the plot.

teacher-sanitizer-insertThe alleged incident happened in December just before winter break, and according to the police report, three students between ages 9 and 10 at Elba Elementary School, located between Rochester and Buffalo, were involved.

Their plan was to expose a teacher to anti-bacterial products because she is highly allergic to them.

The report, provided by the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department, said, “the suspects made comments to other students that they were going to kill (the teacher) by putting antibacterial products around the classroom.”

NZ preschool blames hand sanitizer for child’s drunkenness

The owner of an early childhood centre in Invercargill, New Zealand, where a 4-year-old became grossly intoxicated says the girl consumed alcohol-based hand sanitizer and the center would not be using the product again.

dumboJackie Woodward, owner of the Woodhouse Early Learning Centre, has spoken of the “horrific” few days she and her staff have endured after the girl was hospitalized in a drunken stupor shortly after leaving the childhood premises.

The girl was picked up by her mother from the center at 5.30pm on Monday.

But the mother soon became alarmed at her behavior and rushed her to hospital, where she collapsed into a nurse’s arms and was later diagnosed as being intoxicated. Her alcohol reading was 188mg, nearly four times over the legal driving limit.

Woodward said they believed the girl had climbed onto a bookshelf and reached the hand sanitzser connected to the wall above while the on-duty staff member was putting on a load of washing in another room.

The mother has criticized Woodward’s staff for failing to pick up that her daughter was drunk.

Woodward, who has removed the hand sanitizer from its position and put it in a locked room, said she would not be using the product again, instead sourcing non-alcoholic hand cleaning products.

“I had no idea it was 60 to 70 per cent alcohol content.”

She was relieved the child was okay.

Alcohol-based sanitizer increasingly used as a spirit

About 10 years ago, around SARS, a public health friend in Toronto said that hospitals were having trouble keeping sanitizer units filled in public wards and emergency rooms. Seemed that people with an alcohol dependency and little cash were stealing and drinking it. Around the same time I was told a similar story about stuff missing from a farmer’s hygiene tool storage area: When the temporary labor left the farm, so did the sanitizer. skin-eating-bacteria-infection-MRSA-hand-sanitizer-hospital-RM-DO-NOT-REUSE-298x232

Last year Alberta health folks changed their policies around providing hand sanitizer following the death of a man in an RCMP cell who was suspected of ingesting some, along with anti-depressants, while at a hospital.

According to Perez Hilton, a Pennsylvania man copped to being a repeat acquirer of large amounts of free sanitizer for drinks.

A man in Pennsylvania has admitted to stealing 12 bottles of hand sanitizer from the UPMC Hospital in Altoona.

The man, 51-year-old Lee Ammerman, was caught because an employee saw him stealing a bottle in October when he tried to hide it in an arm sling AND then recognized him doing it again in December!

BUT, get this, when confronted by cops about stealing the sanitizer, Lee didn’t even deny it!

In fact, he confessed to what he was actually using it for! (why so many exclamation marks? -ben)

He said: “I mix the liquid with orange juice.”

With the increase in publicly-available alcohol-based sanitizer comes the unintended consequence of being a target for theft.

Norovirus outbreak hits Corcordia College; alcohol-based sanitizers and wipes won’t do to much

According to, a likely outbreak of norovirus has made at least 30 students of Corcodia College ill.

It was first reported on the 800-student campus Friday. Within a couple of days, 30 students contracted the virus and four wound up in Lawrence Hospital Center in Bronxville.

Katherine Chiciaza, 18, was in the school library Saturday morning when she became nauseous.
“I had to come back to the dorm and throw up in the bathroom,” she said. “I felt like that the whole day.”
The college sent out an email to students and staff, urging them to take precautions to avoid the virus, such as cleaning hands, and to stay hydrated if they get it.

The school also dispatched cleaning crews, twice a day, to sanitize all common areas, from the dining halls to dorms and classrooms.

Vittoria Rubino, 21, of the Bronx was armed with hand sanitizer and alcohol pads Tuesday as she arrived for class.
“I work in the writing center, so I’ve sterilized the keyboard because everyone uses them,” Rubino said. “I know I’m getting a little crazy.”

While hand sanitizer has its uses, reducing norovirus spread isn’t one of them. Pretty much all commercially available hand sanitizers suck when it comes to reducing norovirus viability. Same with the alcohol-containing wipes. All Vittoria is probably doing is spreading virus particles around.

I haven’t found any reports of University facilities folks suggesting that students substitute hand sanitizer for hand washing.

Not-so-great prison cocktails, pt. II: NZ prisoners drunk on hand sanitizer

Inmates at a Christchurch prison have concocted a toxic home brew out of hand sanitizer, getting drunk off the novel drink.

APNZ reports hand sanitizer was given out to Christchurch residents to help prevent the spread of disease after the deadly February earthquake, and Rolleston Prison bosses decided to do the same.

But three enterprising inmates have used the germ killer as the base for a brew, adding sugar-based products like powdered fruit drink to sweeten it.

Inmate Tuarea Pahi, 24, got drunk and assaulted a prison officer, an attack he says he doesn’t remember.

It came as a shock to the officer because they had reportedly been on friendly terms before then.

An extra 70 days has been added to Pahi’s jail term after admitting the assault at a district court session inside the prison.

The court heard how Pahi and two other inmates were caught "highly intoxicated" on September 4.

The world has cooties

I am sure I am not the only person who had to deal with cooties. I wasn’t sure cooties had a definition, but apparently it is a non-medical term for an invisible disease. When I was younger I thought, or was told, that boys had cooties (unless you were a boy and then girls had cooties). I never wanted to touch a boy or touch anything that had been touched by boys. If there was contamination I would quickly chant, “circle circle, dot dot, now I got my cootie shot.” There were hand motions that went along with it as well.

I realize that H1N1, seasonal flu, and other infectious diseases are different than cooties, but in many places, people are acting as if everyone has cooties.

An article by USA Today talks about how people, churches, work places, and hospitals are changing to avoid H1N1 and other influenza/diseases. Butt bumping and fist pumping has taken the place of shaking hands. Magazines and toys have been removed from waiting rooms in hospitals and clinics. And, my personal favorite, stethoscopes and chairs are being disinfected (I can’t believe this hasn’t been done before).

Protect yourself from cooties and other diseases.

Are petting zoos safe for kids?

Last week, an E.coli outbreak involving at least 17 kids and 3 adults was linked to a Denver cattle show.

In light of that, a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News spent a day at the petting zoo at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo asking parents if they were worried about the "germs" their kids were being exposed to.

Some said yes; many others were confident in the precautions they were taking.

The stepfather of a three-year-old wasn’t worried. "We wash his hands," he said.

One mother said of her thumb-sucking two-year-old,

“I can’t keep her in a bubble. [But] it’s definitely something I think about every day with her.”

One of the largest petting zoo outbreaks of E.coli O157:H7 to date was linked to the North Carolina State Fair in 2004. A study of the outbreak by Goode and colleagues found,

Persons became infected after contact with manure and engaging in hand-to-mouth behaviors in a petting zoo having substantial E coli O157:H7 contamination.

Use of alcohol-based hand-sanitizing gels was not protective [against infection with E.coli O157:H7], although knowledge of the risk for zoonotic infection was protective.

Are petting zoos safe for kids? Maybe, if you’re aware of the risks and make sure they don’t eat any poop. But that might be easier said than done.

In the San Antonio article, Bill Marler was quoted as saying the threat of exposure to new and dangerous pathogens was too high for him to risk taking a small child or anyone with a compromised immune system to a petting zoo.

It’s your call.