Hand sanitizers a new school staple, but alcohol content stirs controversySome kindergartners call it “the magic soap,” and in schools across the country hand sanitizers are quickly emerging as the weapon of choice against swine flu.
By: Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — Some kindergartners call it “the magic soap,” and in schools across the country hand sanitizers are quickly emerging as the weapon of choice against swine flu.
School districts are installing wall dispensers in classrooms. Teachers are squirting the gel into not-so-clean palms before lunch or after a visit to the bathroom. In some districts, parents had to buy hand sanitizer along with paper and pencils as part of their kids’ back-to-school supplies.
But a wrinkle has emerged in the world of the squirt happy: Hand sanitizers have a fairly high alcohol content. That has some officials worried about flammability and potential misuse as an intoxicant.
To be effective, health officials deem it necessary to have at least 60 percent alcohol, roughly the equivalent of whiskey, in hand sanitizer. Some schools in Florida and Canada have banned hand sanitizers because of the high concentration of alcohol.
But at a time when officials are more concerned about swine flu, many people say some parents and educators may be overreacting.
“If [students] are monitored and they’re taught how to use it properly, I think the benefit far outweighs the risk,” said Sheila Grogan, head of the DuPage County division of the Illinois Association of School Nurses.
Officials at the State Fire Marshal’s office said they’re not aware of any fires caused by hand sanitizers but confirm the risk.
“It doesn’t matter if you have an ounce of this or a
1-gallon bottle, alcohol is a flammable liquid,” said Cathy Stashak, a fire protection specialist with the Office of the State Fire Marshal. “If there’s an ignition source, it could catch on fire.”
Many schools cite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that when fighting germs, nothing beats old-fashioned soap and water, but if that’s not available, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are a good second choice.
The Food and Drug Administration, which is reviewing the safety and effectiveness of hand sanitizers and other germ-killing skin products, reports several incidents of patients with history of alcohol abuse ingesting them in hospitals. In 2007, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that prison inmates were occasionally using hand sanitizers to get drunk. And last year, a middle-school student in Texas was accused of trying to get high by sniffing his teacher’s hand sanitizer.
School officials prohibited their use in Lee County, Fla., and the same was considered at a district in Nova Scotia, Canada, but the threat of swine flu got the better of them: Officials in both places relented this month and are allowing hand sanitizers in the classroom.
In the Canadian city of Winnipeg, a school nursing director expressed concerned that a student who had used hand sanitizer and was inserting an electrical plug or working in a science lab could set off a spark and get burned. The school district decided against providing alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
For many teachers though, the mess-free convenience of the hand sanitizer and its promise of keeping little hands germ free can’t be beat.
At Holmes School in Oak Park, Ill., teacher Courtney Dohman has her kindergarten class line up before snack and lunch and after recess for a spurt of the green hand sanitizer that sits conveniently on a window ledge by the classroom door.
“If I forget, I don’t get 2 feet inside the classroom before someone will say, ‘We forgot the magic soap,’” she said.
And many in her class seemed to enjoy rubbing it into their hands.
“It dries up all by itself,” said an impressed 5-year-old Wesley Lill.
But his mom hasn’t been sold just yet. She, like many parents, is not convinced about the bacteria-fighting power of the hand sanitizer, and they are concerned about the alcohol content.
“I think they’re unnecessary,” said Jenny Harrington, 37, of Oak Park. “I think they make stronger bacteria more resistant.”