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New alcohol problem for schools: hand sanitizers

The specter of the H1N1 virus has schools across the state looking for a quicker fix than a bar of soap and warm water to fend off germs. Turns out even good intentions can lead to trouble.

Even before normal influenza season starts Sunday, the state health department is announcing that 134 schools around the state are reporting notable levels of “influenza-like” illness. And, predictably, health officials urge frequent hand-washing to help lessen the spread of infection.

But the specter of the H1N1 virus has schools across the state and country looking for a quicker fix than a bar of soap and warm water to fend off germs: waterless hand sanitizers.  

Turns out even good intentions can lead to trouble. Problem with these mostly alcohol-laced concoctions is that the State Fire Marshal considers them (PDF) a possible fire hazard.

Still, their use is widespread. Parents tuck the soap-substitutes into kids’ back packs. Teachers stock them in their classrooms. Centennial Schools purchased hand sanitizers for each classroom. Some districts even pleaded with parents to donate squirt bottles of hand sanitizer — along with the usual mountain of paper, pencils and tissues. Some districts, like Mounds View, are installing dispensers with non-alcohol hand cleansers.

Flu and fire
All for good health’s sake, kids in St. Paul Public Schools were taught proper hand washing techniques this fall. Further, St. Paul Children’s Hospital stepped in, generously donating 6,000 bottles of hand sanitizer for classroom use.  And, starting today, St. Paul Schools’ students can pump a dollop of the gel sanitizer from lunchroom dispensers before eating.

Yet, for most effectiveness the Centers for Disease Control recommends sanitizers contain at least 60 percent alcohol, and that spells trouble.  According to the State Fire Marshall, that’s a significant quantity of a flammable liquid, meaning it could contribute to the rapid spread of fires originating elsewhere.

Bottom line: sanitizer use and storage in schools are strictly regulated by the Minnesota State Fire Code. Wall-mounted dispensers, for instance, can hold no more than 40.57 fluid ounces.

Yet there are other reasons why what seems like a good thing may not be.

Kids do stupid things. “Believe it or not, some kids have drunk it,” which can cause liver damage, said Cynthia Hiltz, health service coordinator for Anoka-Hennepin Schools.

Hiltz said Anoka-Hennepin decided more than two years ago to restrict use of the alcohol sanitizers for these reasons:

They can cause cracked hands, breaking the skin, which is the first barrier against infection; can cause injury due to getting into eyes or mouth, and are ineffective if used with organic matter on the hands.

Besides that, says Hiltz, there are warnings on the bottles to “Keep out of reach of children.”

No-alcohol sanitizer
In contrast, Mounds View district officials found a brand of no-alcohol hand sanitizer they consider effective and having low risk of skin irritation and minimal odor.

(Update: The CDC recently added this advice to its website:

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(“If soap and water are not available and alcohol-based products are not allowed, other hand sanitizers that do not contain alcohol may be useful.”

(I put the word “may” in bold to emphasis the CDC doesn’t seem to be behind this 100 percent quite yet. Formerly the CDC had said waterless hand sanitizers had to be at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective.

(The change in CDC recommendations was brought to my attention by — no surprise – by a producer of such a product. Chicago-based Environmental Sciences International has launched an alcohol-free Smart & Silky Instant Foaming Hand Sanitizer it says testing shows as an effective germ-killer.)

In St. Paul schools, staff has been briefed about safe use of hand sanitizers, says Ann Hoxie, assistant director of student health and wellness. Additionally, the product donated by Children’s Hospital has a low flammability rating. Further, though the sanitizer brand to be used in lunchrooms carries warnings to keep away from heat, sparks and flames, only adult staff will dispense the product. In both classrooms and lunchrooms dispensers contain only about 18 ounces, she said.

Hand wipes instead of the gels are OK in a pinch, Hiltz said, but she argued in guidelines she wrote for the district that research shows that good old soap and water four times a day at school can decrease illness 21 to 57 percent..

It’s a lesson most of us learned from our mothers: “Wash your hands.” Seems Mom was right.

Cynthia Boyd writes on education, health, social issues and other topics. She can be reached at cboyd [at] minnpost [dot] com.