Amid recalls and warnings of tainted hand sanitizers from the Food and Drug Administration, 15 adults in the United States have been hospitalized for methanol poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, is a toxic chemical that can lead to hospitalization or death if ingested. All of the people hospitalized reported having ingested hand sanitizer, and all of the cases were confirmed with blood tests.
Of the 15 people who were hospitalized, four died, according to the CDC. Another three developed vision problems, a side effect of methanol poisoning.
According to the CDC report, the cases occurred in New Mexico and Arizona between May and June. The average age was 43, and 13 of the cases occurred in men. According to the report, several of the cases were among Native Americans, a population that has been severely affected by the coronavirus.
Earlier in August, NBC senior investigative correspondent Cynthia McFadden reported on the scope of the crisis in the Navajo Nation, which has seen more coronavirus deaths per capita than any U.S. state; in general, Native Americans have the highest rates of hospitalization from COVID-19 than any other racial group in the country.
In the report, Shardai Pioche, a research assistant at the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, said that high rates of substance abuse in the Navajo Nation sometimes resulted in people ingesting "ocean water," which she described as hand sanitizer mixed with water.
"If you're not able to afford to buy alcohol — if there's hand sanitizer available and it's only $3 — it goes hand and hand, kind of, with poverty," she said.
The FDA has flagged more than 115 hand sanitizers that may contain methanol since June. According to the CDC, hand sanitizers should only contain ethanol or isopropanol alcohol, and hand sanitizer should never be ingested. Methanol poisoning can occur when the chemical is applied to the skin, but those cases are rare.
Symptoms of methanol poisoning can include headaches, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, loss of coordination, and a decreased level of consciousness. If left untreated, people suffering from methanol poisoning may develop "severe anion-gap metabolic acidosis," seizures, and blindness, according to the CDC. The poisoning can be fatal. Anyone who has ingested or topically used hand sanitizers with methanol should see a doctor as soon as possible if they begin experiencing symptoms.