Benzene is a known carcinogen for humans, but it is still in the top 20 chemicals used in the U.S., based on production volume.1 Despite the known toxicity, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued interim guidelines in March 2020, allowing it in hand sanitizers at levels up to 2 parts per million (ppm).2
The compensation was made due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused an unprecedented demand for disinfectant products such as hand sanitizers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol to prevent COVID-19 if soap and water are not available.3
This, combined with panic and fear in the early days of the pandemic, led to a shortage of hand sanitizers, and supplies were insufficient to meet consumer demand. As evidence of its increased prevalence, Poison Control calls for hand sanitizer increased by 79% in March 2020 compared to March 2019.4
This prompted the FDA to loosen its product guidelines, allowing for increased levels of toxins like benzene, despite its potential to cause cancer.
The FDA has opened the door for benzene hand sanitizer
When a shortage of hand sanitizers emerged at the start of the pandemic, provisional FDA guidelines allowed manufacturers to produce products from lower levels of ethanol, provided all the toxins it contained fell below their temporary limits.
In addition to benzene at 2 ppm, acetaldehyde, which is genotoxic and potentially carcinogenic, is allowed at levels up to 50 ppm, even as the agency stated: “Given the large number of uses of this product expected by consumers and healthcare professionals during public emergencies health, exposure to hand sanitizer with high levels of acetaldehyde is a significant safety issue. ”5 To explain their relaxed restrictions, the FDA said:6
“… The FDA works with industry to ensure that harmful levels of impurities are not present in the ethanol used in hand sanitizers. After further review of the data, we temporarily provide flexibility in respect of certain impurities at established levels…
Based on our review of available data, we found that these temporary levels of impurities can be tolerated in a relatively short period of time, given the emphasis on hand hygiene during the COVID-19 public health crisis and to avoid exacerbating access problems for alcoholic beverages. hands.
Accordingly, during this public health emergency, the FDA does not intend to take action against companies that produce fuel or technical grade ethanol for hand sanitizers that do not meet USP or FCC requirements or companies that use such ethanol to prepare hand sanitizers. on a temporary basis. , provided that all other circumstances in the instructions are present … ”
The move opened the door to the production of hand sanitizers that use cheap low-quality ethanol, which poses a health risk to humans. The FDA finally withdrew its provisional guidelines for alcohol-based hand sanitizers on October 12, 2021, but they do not take effect until December 31, 2021.7 – almost two years after it was released.
The FDA warns consumers not to use hundreds of brands of disinfectants
So many hand sanitizers contain potentially harmful ingredients that they have requested their own page on the FDA website entitled “FDA Updates on Consumers of Hand Sanitizers s = Should Not Be Used”.8 As of December 1, 2021, there were 270 listings on their list, including products tested by the FDA and found to contain benzene, acetaldehyde, methanol, acetal, or other toxins.
Other hand sanitizers on the FDA’s “do not use” list have been found to be contaminated with microbes, made in the same plant as products containing benzene and other toxins, or packaged in containers resembling food or beverage containers, representing increased risk of accidental ingestion.9
In July 2020, the FDA warned that it had seen a sharp increase in hand sanitizer products labeled as containing ethanol (ethyl alcohol) but that were positive for methanol contamination.10 Methanol, or wood alcohol, is poisonous and can be life-threatening if swallowed.
By August 2020, they had warned consumers and healthcare professionals about hand sanitizers that were found to be contaminated with 1-propanol, which can cause central nervous system depression and death if swallowed.
The second warning, published in March 2021, included Durisan Antimicrobial Solutions hand sanitizer from Sanit Technologies LLC, which was found to contain high levels of Burkholderia cepacia and Ralstonia pickettii, which can cause serious infections, including skin infections. soft tissues, lungs, or bloodstream.11
Then, in October 2021, the FDA found “unacceptable” levels of benzene, acetaldehyde, and acetal in certain hand sanitizers produced by Artnaturals.12 David Light, executive director of the Valisure Laboratory, which tests hand sanitizers for contaminants, told NBC News:13
“Benzene toxicity has been known for more than 120 years. It is directly related to causing leukemia in humans. It is a carcinogen of group one, at the top of the FDA list of chemicals that should not be used in manufacturing. Benzene is an extremely cheap solvent. From a chemical perspective, it is an excellent solvent and works very well for the production of chemicals. But as the FDA itself says, very clearly, it should not be used for that. ”
Benzene is found in 44 hand sanitizer products
Valisure tested 260 hand sanitizers, including liquid and non-liquid products. They found that 44 batches, or 17%, contained benzene. The highest detected level of benzene was 16.1 ppm, which is more than eight times the FDA provisional limit of 2 ppm.14
Benzene is found in crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke, and is also widely used to produce chemicals used in the production of plastics, synthetic fibers, lubricants, rubber, paints, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. Benzene interferes with cells, causing the bone marrow to not produce enough red blood cells, causing anemia, for example. It can also cause damage to the immune system, including changes in antibody levels and loss of white blood cells.
After long-term exposure, benzene causes cancer in humans, especially leukemia, and is known to lead to irregular menstruation and reduced ovarian size in women. Furthermore, as stated by the CDC:15
“The main effect of benzene from long-term exposure is on the blood. (Prolonged exposure means exposure of one year or more.) Benzene causes adverse effects on the bone marrow and can cause a reduction in red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and affect the immune system, increasing the chance of infection. ”
The use of benzene in hand sanitizers is especially huge as it can cause damage by skin absorption and inhalation, both of which are possible when the hand sanitizer is used properly and as intended. Valisure has asked the FDA to immediately recall contaminated batches of hand sanitizers it has detected and update its guidelines to include the benzene exposure limit along with the concentration limit.
They also found that at least 45% of benzene-contaminated hand sanitizers contain additional ingredients designed to improve smell, taste or appearance, increasing the risk of swallowing by children. In fact, Valisure said, “Some of the highly contaminated series that Valisure analyzed appear to have been specifically formulated and marketed for children.”16
Antiperspirants withdrawn due to benzene
On November 23, 2021, Procter & Gamble voluntarily recalled certain series of Old Spice and Secret Sweat Spray Aerosol and Old Spice Below Deck Spray Aerosol Products sold in the U.S. due to the presence of benzene.17
Ironically, the FDA has announced a voluntary withdrawal, even recognizing that “benzene exposure can occur by inhalation, orally and through the skin.”18 yet he consciously allowed increased levels of benzene in hand sanitizers during the pandemic – at a time when people were using products more often – without any warning.
In the meantime, he warns that if you have any hand sanitizer on the “do not use” list, you should stop using it and “dispose of it, ideally in a hazardous waste container”.19 The FDA has no authority to force product recalls, although it can warn of contaminated products.
However, unless you’re in the habit of checking the FDA’s website for consumer warnings or accidentally seeing something in the news, you might not know that the hand sanitizer you use to “stay” can expose you to cancer-causing chemicals.
Do you really need a hand sanitizer?
Excessive use of hand sanitizers and other disinfectants can have the opposite effect. There are potential adverse effects on human health from inhaling disinfectants, as such chemicals are known to accumulate in the lungs, liver, kidneys, stomach, brain and blood. Exposure during the pandemic was certainly increased for many people, who were exposed to disinfectants by inhalation and oral routes, as well as through skin and eyes.
There are also significant environmental concerns due to the “unusual release and spread of higher concentrations of biocide-based products into surface and groundwater and wastewater treatment systems” during a pandemic.20 When disinfectants and biocides enter the environment, they can wipe out beneficial bacterial species that keep drug-resistant microorganisms under control.
“[I]if biocide concentrations reach subminimal inhibitory concentration (sub-MIC), this event can increase selective pressure, stimulate horizontal gene transfer (HGT), and trigger the evolution of AMR [antimicrobial resistance]”, Scientists warn.21 Even during a pandemic, small hand sanitizers can do what soap and water can’t.
Unless you are in a hospital setting, where disinfectants are sometimes needed, hand sanitizers should be used sparingly and only when really needed, which usually won’t be at all.