Tools to keep hands pathogen-free can have unintended uses: teens drinking sanitizer

I received a bunch of my food safety education while working with fruit and vegetable farmers in southern Ontario (that’s in Canada). Sure, I learned lots of stuff in classes, but a lot of my training on practical ways to keep folks from barfing was in greenhouses, fields and orchards. Farmers deal with variability in weather, wildlife, prices and staff. Driving up and down dirt roads and walking through their systems led me to the conclusion that it takes a lot to surprise a producer.

One farmer who figured his staff were one of his biggest weaknesses, invested in a couple of portable restrooms that he was going to cart around to the orchards. He told his staff that they were expected to cease the convention of peeing against a tree. The staff didn’t like the idea of having to stop and walk back to the road where the porta potties were located. So they set them on fire and burned them down. The producer said calling the fire department was an unexpected outcome of his food safety program.

Another producer told me that he had installed fully stocked hands free restrooms in his greenhouse, put boxes of one-use gloves throughout his site and came in one day to see a staff member urinating on the outside of the restroom with his gloves on. Maybe not surprising is that he fired the employee on the spot.

Giving folks tools for risk reduction doesn’t always end up with the intended action. According to AP and USA Today teenagers are buying alcohol-based hand sanitizer, not as a bacterial reduction tool, but as a party drink precursor.

Teenagers are showing up in Los Angeles emergency rooms after drinking inexpensive liquid hand sanitizers to get drunk.
Cheap and easily accessible hand sanitizers contain 62 percent ethyl alcohol.

The Los Angeles Times says six teenagers have shown up in two San Fernando Valley emergency rooms in the last few months with alcohol poisoning after drinking hand sanitizer.

Some of the teens used salt to separate the alcohol from the sanitizer, making a potent drink similar to a shot of hard liquor. Distillation instructions can be found on the Internet.

Although there’s only been a few cases, county public health toxicology expert Cyrus Rangan says it could signal a dangerous trend.


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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.