Experts say that some manufacturers were deliberately substituting ethanol with methanol in their now-recalled hand sanitizer products in order to cut costs and keep up with demand amid a shortage created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Food and Drug Administration has been continually updating its list of dangerous hand sanitizers, which has since grown to nearly 150 products, due to the presence of the toxic chemical.
All of the cleaners -- which have been introduced into the market at a time of heightened risk -- were recalled by the manufacturer or distributor after testing positive for methanol, which is a substance often used to create fuel and antifreeze. The chemical can be poisonous if absorbed through the skin and potentially fatal if ingested, according to the FDA.
The list has been rapidly updated since June when the regulator observed an increase in hand sanitizers that purportedly contained ethanol but tested positive for methanol contamination.
Patrick Penfield, a professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management, told Newsweek that there was a push to use the toxic chemical rather than ethyl alcohol because "the price of this ingredient has skyrocketed."
Penfield said the price hike was a direct result of the worldwide demand for sanitizer following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"So in order to meet hand sanitizer demand from the U.S., some Mexican hand sanitizer producers started replacing ethyl alcohol with methanol in order to keep prices low and to supply their customers," he told the outlet.
Aline Holmes, a clinical associate professor at the Rutgers University School of Nursing, said the decision by manufacturers to swap in the harmful chemical was "deliberate," according to Newsweek.
In most cases, the toxic chemical does not appear on the label, according to the FDA. However, "methanol is not an acceptable ingredient in any drug, including hand sanitizer, even if methanol is listed as an ingredient on the product label," the agency said.
Failure by the manufacturer to recall all potentially affected products "is placing consumers in danger of methanol poisoning," the agency said.
Substantial exposure can result in nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, permanent blindness, seizures, coma, permanent damage to the nervous system or death, according to the FDA. Consumers experiencing symptoms should seek "immediate treatment," the agency said.
Amid a time when consumers are using the product at a higher rate, the FDA is urging consumers not to use any hand sanitizer products from any of the listed manufacturers even if the product or particular lot number is not included in the recall "since some manufacturers are recalling only certain – but not all – of their hand sanitizer products," the FDA said.
The agency is also proactively working with manufacturers to recall products and urging distributors and retailers to "immediately" stop distributing and selling the gel sanitizers due to the risk of methanol poisoning.
A majority of the hand sanitizers containing methanol appear to have been manufactured in Mexico.