By Marion Mass
A world of normalcy is almost in our reach. More than 45 percent of the U.S. population has been vaccinated, workplaces are reopening, and many schools are returning to in-person learning. While this is hopeful and exciting, in the midst of our eagerness we must strive to maintain many of the critical public health practices we have adopted over the past year.
If you spoke to your past self, from only two years ago, chances are you probably did not obsessively apply and carry around hand sanitizer because that wasn’t yet instilled in our public mindset. Now, most of us wouldn’t dream of leaving home without it or applying it as soon as we walk out of a store. While this a relatively newer practice for many Americans, it is not something we should leave behind in the COVID era. While hand washing is most effective, hand sanitizers with 60% alcohol can hold us over till a thorough hand washing is possible to curb the spread of germs.
Unfortunately, this new increased demand combined with relaxed regulations and hastily manufactured products, has led to an unintended consequence – the surge of ineffective and potentially dangerous hand sanitizer products on the market. Valisure, an independent pharmacy, recently wrote a citizen petition to the FDA on their findings that showed 17 percent of tested hand sanitizers had high levels benzene, a known carcinogen. The petition called on the FDA commissioner to recall the identified batches of hand sanitizer that contained benzene and other contaminants, as well as conduct an investigation regarding the products and the manufacturers. We await FDA action, but fortunately, there are still safe, trustworthy products on the shelves, with research showing us that the leading brands of hand sanitizer did not have any detectable levels of benzene.
Pediatricians like myself must consider the health problems that ineffective or dangerous hand sanitizers can create as children re-enter the classroom. CDC guidelines state: “disinfecting and promoting hand hygiene are important everyday actions schools can take to slow the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases and protect students and staff,” and also confirms that “school-based programs promoting hand washing and hand hygiene can result in less gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses and fewer missed school days.”
Unfortunately, our kids will be at risk for the spread of COVID and other diseases if the hand sanitizer provided is not effective. Even worse, if the product is doing more harm than good. Ingestion of alcohol based hand sanitizer is already a concern. Ingestion of benzene containing product even more so.
Every shift, I see kids who are home sick from school, missing vital learning time. As kids go back into classrooms, it is crucial that schools and teachers avoid these toxic products and only allow products that will actually work to keep germs out of these kids’ hands and mouths.
The responsibility to monitor these products does not, and should not, rest solely on the shoulders of teachers and school staff, although they certainly can be on the lookout. It is up to regulatory bodies like the CDC, FDA and Department of Education to provide schools with the necessary tools to keep these kids healthy and as free from dangerous carcinogens as possible. They need to act soon, before school doors reopen and more of our kids are back in classrooms.
Dr. Marion Mass, M.D. is a pediatrician. She received her medical training from Duke University School of Medicine and Northwestern University and has been in practice for more than 20 years. She works for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, her opinions are not necessarily shared by her employer.