Don’t Catch Fire When Using Hand Sanitizer, a Defense Safety Office Warns

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Germ-fighting gels are flammable—and some people have already been burned.

Hand sanitizer remains in high usage and demand as the pandemic persists—but some forms of the gel germ-fighters have reportedly caused people’s hands to catch on barely-visible blue fire, prompting the Defense Department to warn troops and others this week to be safe when sanitizing.

The department’s Safety Office at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, recently distributed a Food and Drug Administration bulletin that detailed how an employee at the Energy Department’s Federal Contractors Group used an alcohol-based hand sanitizer as advised and endured the stark danger that some cleaning rubs pose. 

“Shortly after the application to his hands, but before the liquid disinfectant had evaporated and completely dried, the employee touched a metal surface which accumulated a static electrical charge, resulting in an ignition source,” the bulletin read. “The ethyl-alcohol based disinfectant flashed, resulting in an almost invisible blue flame on both hands.”

Spotlighting the incident, Ron Ross, safety manager with Fort Jackon’s Installation Safety Office told personnel to “exercise vigilance when using these gel sanitizers to ensure it is completely evaporated before touching any metal object and or other items that often harbor static electricity.”

“We can never be too cautious,” Ross said.

The warning follows other, similar reports of hand burns possibly sparked by sanitizer use. It also comes on the heels of multiple other notices launched by FDA cautioning people of other hazards that may accompany the use of some sanitizing brands. 

Since the pandemic emerged, the Centers for Disease Control has encouraged using hand sanitizers with a 60% to 95% alcohol, noting in one recommendation that “unless hands are visibly soiled, an alcohol-based hand rub is preferred over soap and water in most clinical situations due to evidence of better compliance compared to soap and water.” 

FDA has issued multiple warnings about unsafe hand sanitizers and maintains a do-not-use list of hand sanitizers that contain methanol or 1-propanol.

According to a recent FDA alert, methanol, or wood alcohol is "often used to create fuel and antifreeze that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin as well as life-threatening when ingested.” Noting that methanol exposure can result in nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, permanent blindness, seizures, coma, death and more, officials from the health agency also pinpointed an “increasing number of adverse events, including blindness, cardiac effects, effects on the central nervous system, and hospitalizations and death, primarily reported to poison control centers and state departments of health.”

“The agency continues to see these figures rise,” officials wrote.