COVID-19: unintended poisonings from hand sanitizer, cleaning products increase 73% in Alberta

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Hand sanitizer poisonings doubled since pandemic began'
Health Matters: Hand sanitizer poisonings doubled since pandemic began
Health Matters March 22: Alberta's Poison and Drug Information Service has seen a massive increase in calls related to hand sanitizer poisonings - and the concern isn't just about kids. Plus Alberta researchers are recruiting volunteers to help study the long-term health effects of COVID-19. Su-Ling Goh reports. – Mar 22, 2021

The number of unintended poisonings from hand sanitizer and cleaning products has skyrocketed in Alberta since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of calls to Alberta Poison and Drug Information Service (PASIS) increased by 73 per cent in 2020, according to the University of Alberta’s Injury Prevention Centre.

The spike started when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, as people increased their hand hygiene and cleaning routines.

“While these products are essential for cleaning and preventing the spread of the virus, when they are used incorrectly, they can cause unintentional poisoning and serious injuries,” said Kathy Belton, associate director of the Injury Prevention Centre.

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“When they are left in common areas and within the reach of children, kids can accidentally ingest them or get some in their eyes.”

Calls due to hand sanitizers specifically went up by 200 per cent over 2019 numbers, according to Belton. There was an eightfold increase in calls related to youth aged 13 to 19. The calls related to seniors over 60 increased five times.

The U of A believes the increase in hand sanitizer poisonings in teens is likely due to the increased availability of the product in homes, schools, fitness facilities and retail locations.

Mark Yarema, the medical director of PADIS, also warned some teens may be experimenting with drinking hand sanitizer to get high.

In some cases, unintended poisonings were due to confusing packaging.

“Hand sanitizer in particular has been packaged in beer cans and wine bottles,” Belton said.

“If you think about it, if there’s a beer can with hand sanitizer in it, an unsuspecting inebriated person could mistake it for a real beer.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Accidental poisonings from cleaning supplies on the rise'
Coronavirus outbreak: Accidental poisonings from cleaning supplies on the rise

Nearly 4,500 Canadians die each year from unintended poisonings, according to the 2020 evidence summary on the prevention of poisoning in Canada. It can also lead to increased hospitalizations and emergency room visits.

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Yarema said PADIS has not seen any serious outcomes from the poisonings in Alberta.

Signs and symptoms to watch out for

Some of the signs and symptoms to watch out for when it comes to ingesting hand sanitizers are lower blood sugar and slow heart rate and breathing. Swallowing hand sanitizer may cause a poisoned child to appear drunk, with an unsteady gait, slurred speech, nausea, vomiting and drowsiness, according to the U of A.

When it comes to cleaning products and disinfectants, symptoms can vary depending on whether the product was swallowed, inhaled or splashed in the eyes or on the skin. Red watery eyes, mouth pain, drooling, choking, gagging, difficulty breathing, vomiting and stomach pain could all be signs of poisoning.

“These are toxic chemicals and they should be treated with respect,” Belton said.

Safety tips

The U of A provides the following tips to keep you and your family safe:

  • Supervise children under the age of 12 when they’re using hand sanitizer to ensure they aren’t using too much or putting their hands in their mouth after they use it
  • Read labels and follow use instructions
  • Store all hand sanitizers and cleaning products out of sight and out of reach of children
  • Keep products in their original containers with their labels
  • Wear rubber gloves when cleaning
  • Don’t mix cleaning products; this can produce toxic fumes

The emergency number for the Poison and Drug Information Service is 1-800-332-1414.


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