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Poison Control Centers Report Young Children Getting Drunk on Hand Sanitizers

Sep 15, 2015

According to an analysis by the Georgia Poison Center, since 2010, poison control hotlines across the United States have seen a nearly 400 percent increase in calls related to children younger than 12 ingesting hand sanitizers that contain alcohol.

In Georgia, a Georgia six-year-old swallowed three or four squirts of liquid hand sanitizer at school. She said she drank it because it tasted like strawberries. The sanitizer contained enough alcohol to make the girl dangerously drunk, CNN reports. She was taken to the emergency room, slurring her words and unable to walk steadily.

The Georgia Poison Center's director, Dr. Gaylord Lopez, said, "Kids are getting into these products more frequently, and unfortunately, there's a percentage of them going to the emergency room." The amount of alcohol in hand sanitizers ranges from 45 to 95 percent. (Wine and beer contain about 12 percent and 5 percent alcohol, respectively, Lopez said.) Even small amounts of hand sanitizer-as little as two or three squirts in some cases-can cause alcohol poisoning in a small child.

Confusion, vomiting and drowsiness are among the effects of alcohol poisoning. In severe cases, a child can stop breathing.

Dr. Chris Ritchey, who treated her in the emergency room at Gwinnett Medical Center near Atlanta, said her blood-alcohol level was .179, which is twice what's considered legally drunk in an adult. The girl had fallen and hit her head so doctors kept her overnight at a nearby children's hospital to watch for signs of brain trauma.

The Georgia Poison Center said there were 3,266 reports relating to hand sanitizers and young children in 2010, with a number increase to 16,117 cases in 2014. Dr. Lopez recently sent wrote Georgia's school systems warning about children drinking hand sanitizer. Some children, especially older ones, drink it intentionally to get drunk, while others do it on a dare from friends. Some sanitizers have fruit fragrances and children drink those because they think the liquid will taste good.

"A kid is not thinking this is bad for them," Lopez said. "A lot of the more attractive [hand sanitizers] are the ones that are scented. There are strawberry, grape, orange-flavored hand sanitizers that are very appealing to kids."

Lopez advises parents and teachers to store hand sanitizers containing alcohol out of reach of children and carefully supervise sanitizer use, letting children use only a small amount. Non-alcohol based products or sanitizing wipes can also be substituted for sanitizers that contain a lot of alcohol, he said. Even though the wipes contain alcohol, a child can't ingest a dangerous amount of alcohol from wipes. The American Association of Poison Control Centers recommends that parents not buy hand sanitizers that smell sweet and would be appealing to young children. Experts say it's best to wash hands with soap under running water where possible and reserve hand sanitizers for situations where soap and water are not available.

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