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Grandmother warns parents about hand sanitizer packaging

Cindy Zajac said that her first thought was that she had "poisoned" her 18-month-old grandson after he accidentally ate hand sanitizer from a pouch.

As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers about hand sanitizers packaged in a way that resembles food and drink, a grandmother in Manitoba, Canada is speaking out about a scary situation that happened to her and her family.

Cindy Zajac, 62, was babysitting her 18-month-old grandson, Logan, on Aug 21. When it was time for a snack, she dug through the diaper bag prepared by his mother, Nikki, 32, and pulled out what she believed to be a fruit puree pouch, one of his favorite snacks.

"(My daughter) will always pack things in his diaper bag, like little Cheerios or a puree pouch or muffins or whatever she wants to give him," Zajac said. "... I just took a brief glance (at the pouch) and assumed immediately that it was a puree for a child, because all I saw was the bright colors and the twist-off top, and (with a toddler) you're always kind of multi-tasking."

She said her grandson took a "huge sip" out of the packet.

"Suddenly his complexion turned beet red, and he immediately tried to get what was left out of his mouth," Zajac said. "It was so immediate. From the neck up he turned a reddish-purple and my heart stopped."

The pouch — which featured colorful cartoon branding — was filled with 62% ethyl alcohol hand sanitizer. While the package was labeled as hand sanitizer and did have warnings, including a "Do Not Eat" label, Zajac said that she had only glanced at it for a second and did not see the warnings until her grandson had a reaction.

"I'm freaking out, I'm going 'What the heck,' so I turned around to have a better look at the package under the light," said Zajac, who said she first thought the pouch might have been expired or rancid fruit. "I was looking for an expiration date, and then I saw ‘hand sanitizer’ at the bottom of the package. The blood drained out of me, and I'm just thinking 'Oh, my god, I just poisoned my own grandchild.'"

Zajac shared a photo of the hand sanitizer, held up by an emergency responder, with TODAY.
Zajac shared a photo of the hand sanitizer, held up by an emergency responder, with TODAY. Cindy Zajac

Within minutes, Logan began to slur and then fell asleep; Zajac said that she immediately called emergency services. While her grandson had regained consciousness by the time the ambulance arrived 25 minutes later, he was still sleepy, so he was taken to a local children's hospital.

According to the FDA, consumers in the United States have purchased hand sanitizers packaged in things including beer cans, children’s food pouches, water bottles, juice bottles and vodka bottles; a spokesperson for the organization said that the FDA did not have an exact number of reported incidents. In some cases, food flavorings have also been added.

"I am increasingly concerned about hand sanitizer being packaged to appear to be consumable products, such as baby food or beverages," said FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, M.D., in a press release. "These products could confuse consumers into accidentally ingesting a potentially deadly product."

A Canadian health agency, the Institute for Safe Medicine Practices (ISMP), issued a similar warning.

The FDA release did not name any retailers that may sell hand sanitizers that appear to be food or drink, though the ISMP cautioned that the problem may be due to distilleries and other food or drink producers who started making hand sanitizers during the pandemic and may have "difficulty in obtaining bottles normally used for household products" or "are using containers that are already available in their pre-pandemic production processes."

The company that packaged the hand sanitizer Zajac accidentally fed to her grandson, Ashtel Studios Inc., told TODAY that they been "recently made aware of a concern expressed by a parent regarding our hand sanitizer" and had changed their packaging.

The company who packaged the hand sanitizer changed their design.
The company who packaged the hand sanitizer changed their design. Ashtel Studios, Inc.

"We took this concern seriously and immediately switched out this product for our bottled hand sanitizer to eliminate any misconception or concern," said a spokesperson for the company. "As safety is our number one priority, we deemed it appropriate to make this packaging switch. We regret any inconvenience this may have caused."

The new packaging is less colorful, has a more traditional screw-on cap and uses a plastic bottle instead of the pouch.

Ashtel Studios could not confirm the name of the parent who reported the hand sanitizer packaging, but Zajac said that neither her nor her daughter reached out to the company. However, she said she was glad to hear that the packaging had been changed.