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Hand sanitizers: Safe alternative to hand washing or deadly risk?

It may feel like COVID-19 is turning our lives upside down, sideways and backward over the last few months. For some, it has made daily life downright scary. And now, when soaps, disinfectants, and cleaning products are still hard to find on store shelves, consumers need to be extra cautious of which hand sanitizers they use.

The FDA recently warned consumers to avoid certain brands of hand sanitizer for fear they are contaminated with methanol. Methanol, or wood alcohol, is a chemical that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested. CBS News reported that the agency is “aware of cases of adults and children who have ingested hand sanitizer made with methanol, which has led to blindness, hospitalizations and death.”

It’s a scary thought. But is a product safety issue like this surprising? Not exactly.

Don’t misunderstand. These findings are devastating. And the companies involved represent only a minuscule number of the organizations working hard to provide SAFE and EFFECTIVE products to consumers. But when you have a perfect storm of business and operational challenges – stressed internal resources, new companies jumping in to help meet demand, disrupted supply chains, and limited regulatory oversight– quality and safety mistakes are more likely to occur.

This case puts yet another spotlight on risks facing pharmaceutical and medical device companies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are three of the most important lessons we think you should learn from this recent product safety issue:

  1. When it comes to supply-chain management and risk-management, it’s time to go above and beyond. Proactively identify vulnerabilities and assess potential risks. Evaluate when and how a slip in quality or potential contamination could occur. Ask yourself: Do you have a new supplier? Have they changed their formulation? What else does that supplier produce? Then, when that risk assessment is complete, implement additional measures to prevent them. You may want to conduct extra sampling and testing – both in terms of when you test the product and what you test for. For example, companies in the hand sanitizer business should now be testing alcohol supplies for methanol or other similar contaminants.
  2. Hand sanitizer companies should be prepared to “over-communicate” about the safety of their products. If this methanol contamination expands further in the coming weeks, expect consumer concern to escalate to fear as the entire product category comes into question. If you’re ever asked about how you ensured the quality of your products, what will your story be? You should be thinking now about what your answer would be.
  3. For the companies already impacted by methanol contamination concerns, be prepared to take tangible, visible steps to protect consumers. That goes for manufacturers and retailers. Go the extra mile when it comes to recall management. Use every channel available to reach consumers directly and get the products off shelves. If you’re not currently impacted, make sure you are still learning from this product safety matter. After all, finding new contaminants – whether methanol in hand sanitizers or NDMA in metformin and ranitidine – isn’t unusual in today’s world.

There’s going to be something for everyone to learn in this evolving case study. The question is whether you take the opportunity to learn from it now or wait until the lesson is much more expensive.

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