Using a lot of hand sanitizer might lead to a failed alcohol screening test

Substance abuse in commercial kitchens isn’t much of a secret. Maybe it’s brought on by the repeated listening of Tom Petty or Pink Floyd or, as Tony Bordain chronicled in Kitchen Confidential, a cycle of cocaine and alcohol is often used by cooks to deal with the fast-paced nature of the back of the house.

A few years ago, while interviewing restaurant and kitchen managers about inspections and what they worry about when it comes to food safety I heard about dealing with drugs in the kitchen. One manager said blood getting on food was a concern of his. He relayed to me that his employees were more likely to wrap their hands in duct tape instead of going to the hospital if they cut themselves during service; his chain’s insurance policy required a drug and alcohol test for medical coverage to kick in.

According to a study published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology and cited in the The Toronto Star, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer numerous times throughout a day might lead to false positives in some tests that screen for alcohol abuse.

The impetus for the study came from an article in the Wall Street Journal, according to the study’s author Dr. Gary Reisfield, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida.
Resfield recounts the details of the story: It described a nurse who was in a professional monitoring program for alcohol dependence. She had to submit to random alcohol tests. In one of the tests she came up with a high level of an alcohol biomarker. She was accused of alcohol use and of breaking her contract. But she insisted she wasn’t drinking. She was put in a locked unit, used Purell and again she produced a high level of an alcohol biomarker.
Reisfield had seen the same thing at the Florida Recovery Centre, run by the University of Florida’s Department of Addiction Medicine. So he decided to conduct a study and see what would happen. The study looked at 11 individuals, who did not drink, but used the hand sanitizer Purell, which contains 62 per cent ethyl alcohol. The participants had to wash their hands every five minutes for 10 hours a day for three consecutive days. (Nurses in intensive care usually wash their hands every time they touch a patient, Reisfield pointed out.)
What Reisfield found confirmed what he had seen at the Florida Recovery Centre – hand sanitizer seems to affect alcohol tests.
In the study eight of the participants had levels of EtG (ethyl glucuronide is a biomarker used to assess the use of alcohol) that were greater than 500 nanograms per mililitre; four had levels that exceeded 1,000 and one individual had EtG levels in excess of 2,000 nanograms per mililitre.

Squirting sanitizer every five minutes for 10 hrs a day seems a bit high to be realistic for a food service setting but maybe that’s happening somewhere.


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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.