Hand Sanitizers, Alcohol Poisoning & Chemistry

By Josh Bloom — Sep 14, 2015
In the past five years, alcohol poisoning of children has skyrocketed by 400 percent. Most of this is from kids, believe it or not, drinking hand sanitizer. Fortunately, this is a solvable problem -- and it's not even that hard. Send in the chemists.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 12.36.12 PMAs if we don't have enough substance abuse problems (and deaths) is this country. The last thing we need is another way for young teens (and kids) to get access to alcohol.

But, not only do they have it, the alcohol they are now getting their hands on can be very dangerous. The method that they are using to get it can provide alcohol that is pure as 190 proof, (95 percent alcohol). This is as pure as alcohol can be made without the use of special techniques that are done in labs.

There are two different, but related related problems:

  1. Consuming the sanitizer directly, often by children
  2. Using a method to make the alcohol content even greater.

Teens have figured out how to do the latter in a very easy way by using salt.

This is very similar to what organic chemists do many times a day. When a reaction is complete, almost all of the time, water must be added. It must be removed later. Here is an simplified version of how it's done. It shows what it looks like when you remove the water from a wet chloroform solution (cloudy to clear). The same principle is used for concentrating the alcohol in hand sanitizer.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 11.41.23 AM

The method that teens are using to makes purified alcohol is very similar to what we did in lab. They put the sanitizer gel in a glass, add a bunch of salt, wait a while, and then pour the alcohol, through cheesecloth. Voila: They now have very pure alcohol more so than what they started with. This is where it gets dangerous.

The alcoholic content of beer is about 5 percent. Wine is about 15 percent. A martini is about 40 percent. So, consumption of alcohol that is about twice as potent as the strongest drinks has led to increasing cases of alcohol poisoning. Very small amounts of pure alcohol can be deadly.

This is seen in the huge rise of alcohol poisoning 400 percent in children under that age of 12 over the past five years.

In a chemistry lab, alcohol is commonly used as a solvent. There are huge bottles of it in every lab. What keeps people from walking out with it? Except for bottles of 100 percent pure alcohol (rarely needed, and you have to sign for it), alcohol is denatured.

Denatured alcohol contains other chemicals that make it undrinkable, usually benzene, or isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. Drinking it will make you very sick. This is one of many strategies that could be employed to address this problem.

I am all but positive that makers of hand sanitizers are thinking of ways to do this. It's not even that hard. There are plenty of chemicals that could be added to these products to make them unpalatable without changing the function of the sanitizer.

Just turn your chemists loose.


Josh Bloom

Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science

Dr. Josh Bloom, the Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science, comes from the world of drug discovery, where he did research for more than 20 years. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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