New England lab finds cancer-causing chemical in hand sanitizer

DEDHAM, Mass. — Towards the end of 2020, the independent laboratory Valisure began taking a closer look at what was in dozens of hand sanitizer products on the market. Scientists at the New Haven, Connecticut lab tell Boston 25 News they were disturbed at what they found.

“We had quite a bit of trouble finding a clean one,” said David Light, a molecular biologist and Valisure’s founder and CEO.

Valisure’s scientists tested 260 hand sanitizer products. According to the company, 44 of the samples came back positive for benzene, an industrial chemical that can cause leukemia and other serious long-term health issues.

“It was very surprising to find benzene at all,” Light said. “We realized that this benzene contamination wasn’t just one product, one time.”

Valisure sent a citizen petition to the FDA in March warning regulators about its findings and asking for a product recall and investigation.

“We do wish the FDA took quicker action on hand sanitizers. They have taken some actions in just the last few weeks and months,” Light said. “Our concern is that a lot of these contaminated hand sanitizers are still out there on the market.”

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when hand sanitizer was scarce, the federal government relaxed its rules to allow more companies to manufacture the hand antiseptic. But consumer advocates say deregulation opened the door to potentially harmful products that could still be on store shelves today. According to the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, more than 1,500 additional manufacturers joined the hand sanitizer market after the FDA lifted its normal restrictions.

“When the pandemic hit, [the FDA] relaxed those rules to get more hand sanitizer into the marketplace, and that was the perfect storm for bad actors,” MASSPIRG Legislative Director Deirdre Cummings said. “People who didn’t necessarily know and weren’t experienced in making hand sanitizer, or companies that wanted to make a buck.”

While Valisure has been sounding the alarm for months, some companies are only now beginning to take action. Artnaturals voluntarily recalled limited batches of its 8-ounce scent-free hand sanitizer last month because it contained impurities, according to an Oct. 27 FDA news release. Earlier in the month, the FDA flagged Artnaturals products because it contained “unacceptable levels” of benzene. Artnaturals did not respond to Boston 25′s request for comment, other than to send an auto-reply to our email.

“If you are not using a top brand name or a hospital-grade hand sanitizer, I think it’s worth checking [Valisure’s] list,” said Dr. Abigail Waldman, Clinical Director at the Mohs and Dermatologic Surgery Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “[Benzene is] not an ingredient so you can’t look at your hand sanitizer and see if it contains benzene. It’s not going to say it there because it’s a contaminant, it’s a by-product of making the hand sanitizer.”

Cummings said if you’re sure of what’s in that little bottle at home or at work, just toss it out.

“I would suggest if you have any questions or concerns about where you got it or what the bottle looks like, it’s better to just throw it away,” Cummings said.


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