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PUBLIC HEALTH

Inmate's High Traced to Hand Sanitizer

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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007

The 49-year-old Maryland inmate seemed seriously sick after he drank from a gallon-container of hand sanitizer. Described as "loony," "red-eyed" and "combative," he was whisked by officials to a nearby Baltimore hospital for treatment.

But they quickly discovered he wasn't ill -- just very, very drunk on Purell.

The October incident, detailed today in the New England Journal of Medicine as one of the first documented cases of its kind, has raised questions about the potential abuse of alcohol-based hand sanitizers by teenagers and other at-risk groups.

"The widespread use of hand sanitizer is fraught with a great deal of danger," said Suzanne Doyon, medical director of the Maryland Poison Center, who co-authored a letter in the journal about the case. "From an infection control perspective they are excellent. But there is this risk involved."

Purell, which is 70 percent alcohol, is far more potent than conventional drinks such as beer (5 percent), wine (12 percent) or liquor (40 percent). Doyon said the non-alcohol ingredients in Purell don't pose a health risk if ingested.

"Someone who drinks it will behave like your pretty typical garden-variety drunk," she said.

The Maryland inmate, described as usually calm, seemed intoxicated and began "lecturing everybody about life" after imbibing the Purell, Doyon said. His blood alcohol level was found to be .33 -- more than four times the legal limit to drink and drive in Maryland.

Since the October incident, the Maryland Poison Center has received reports from five or six other adults in the state who consumed hand sanitizer because "they were looking for a buzz," Doyon said.

There also have been anecdotal reports of teenagers and others using hand sanitizer to get drunk, Doyon said, but none that were medically documented.

Doyon, who became involved in the case after physicians called her for advice, said she could not remember what prison facility the inmate was assigned to or any other details about him.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said he was not aware of the October incident. But he said the episode should not have occurred in the state's prison system.

"We do not allow alcohol-based sanitizers in inmate areas," he said.

Doyon called for limited access to hand sanitizers in rehabilitation clinics, prisons and hospitals.

Meghan Marschall, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Purell, said: "When used as directed, Purell is safe and effective."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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