I was doing a little wine shopping last weekend at a warehouse-sized wine and liquor store, which is new to our neighborhood. I have never seen so much alcohol in on place; surely enough to have the mother of all block parties. When I got to the register, I noticed the obligatory bottle of hand sanitizer. Curiously, that is the strongest alcohol in the store, and they don’t even sell it.
Hand sanitizer is commonly available almost everywhere you look. Little bottles of it are scattered about homes, offices and schools. Small, fragranced tubes are even hooked onto the zippers of my kids’ backpacks – at their teachers’ request. Hand sanitizers are actually jellied alcohol, a cousin of napalm. The alcohol is commonly ethanol – the same kind found in beer, wine and spirits. To achieve 99.99% effectiveness in killing bacteria and viruses on your skin, a concentration of alcohol is required in the 60% to 85% range. That’s 120 to 160 proof, if you are counting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a few people have used this to change their attitude.
In the interest of journalistic integrity, I did a taste test on the name-brand bottle on my desk. One tiny droplet was enough to convince me that vomiting was a real possibility. The manufacturer adds chemicals to discourage consumption.
If bad taste is not enough to dissuade the truly determined, they better check the label carefully. Ethanol is not the only alcohol used. Isopropyl alcohol, or isopropanol, is often used alone or in a mixture with ethanol. This is more industrial solvent than cheap thrill. A half-shot is enough to poison an adult; nausea, vomiting, delirium, unconsciousness, respiratory arrest and sometimes even death. The last hangover you will ever suffer.
Successfully avoiding the isopropanol still leaves you with an alcohol concentration double any hard liquor on the shelf. Since it takes no ID to buy hand sanitizer at the grocery store, and beer and liquor are harder to obtain, young people have tried hand sanitizer shots. Being young, they have limited experience with alcohol (meaning limited ability to break it down), and over-enthusiasm for the project – and these young people end up in the emergency room, if they are lucky. Alcohol poisoning is the extreme state of drunken stupor. It doesn’t take long at 160 proof to go rapidly past euphoria and get into respiratory depression. The stomach is not fond of this stuff; and vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration can complicate the picture.
Having tasted the stuff, I had doubts anyone could stomach it. But the recreational use of dangerous solvents is common, and people will risk even HIV in the pursuit of a “good time.”
This is unlikely to become a top-abused substance in the U.S., but it is a good idea to keep an eye on the hand sanitizer when you have kids or teenagers in the house. Normal hand sanitizer works just as well as strawberry-mango hand sanitizer, and is perhaps a little less tempting.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.