Toxic Methanol was Detected in 6 Disinfection Alcohol Samples 75% Samples with Actual Alcohol Concentration Lower than Claims

15 April 2020
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Toxic Methanol was Detected in 6 Disinfection Alcohol Samples 75% Samples with Actual Alcohol Concentration Lower than Claims

Consumers’ demand on disinfection alcohol surged due to the coronavirus epidemic. However, the product quality varied in the market, and some even found toxic methanol by law enforcement agencies, causing much public concern. From the Consumer Council’s test on 24 disinfection alcohol samples, 6 samples were found with trace amount of methanol that may pose potential health risks such as chronic poisoning. 16 out of the 22 samples labelled with 75% alcohol had actual ethanol and isopropyl alcohol concentrations lower than its claims, of which 3 had actual alcohol concentrations of less than 70%. In terms of volume, 16 had actual net volume lower than that of labelled, with a maximum difference of over 20%.

The Council’s test results unveiled the quality of disinfection alcohol products in the market varied significantly. Apart from the fact that 25% samples contained toxic methanol, the actual alcohol concentration and net volume deviated from the information stated on the product label. Moreover, the container of some samples looked like drinking water bottle which may increase the chance of mis-drinking. Thus, consumers are recommended to pay extra attentions when purchasing. In the meantime, the Council urges manufacturers to be social responsible by exercising stringent control to ensure product quality and providing safe and effective disinfection alcohol to support the consumers in fighting against the pandemic.  

The 24 samples being tested, priced from $9 to $98 per bottle; or per ml ranging from $0.04 to $0.5, a price difference of 12 times. The most expensive sample ($0.5/mL) contained 0.0292% of methanol, and its actual net volume was lower than its label by over 20% (-21.20%), reflecting price and quality are not necessarily correlated.

Methanol

Of the 24 samples tested, 6 were found to contain trace amount of methanol, ranging from 0.007% to 0.0336%. Methanol is a toxic organic solvent that can enter the body through the skin and cause poisoning, central nervous system symptoms, eye damage and metabolic acidosis. Long-term inhalation of methanol is more likely to induce loss of sight or kidney failure. According to the daily reference intake from World Health Organization (WHO), a 70kg-adult should not inhale or ingest more than 35mg methanol a day, otherwise it will induce health problems or even chronic poisoning. Using the sample with highest methanol concentration from this study, an individual has to inhale or ingest more than 104ml of the alcohol before exceeding the safety level recommended by the WHO.

Although the concentration of methanol detected this time was not sufficient to cause acute poisoning in sterilizing a wound, there may be chances that alcohol entering blood fluid directly. Furthermore, if consumers often using this kind of disinfection alcohol to make DIY hand rub or for daily household cleaning, the chances and level of intake will be increased accordingly. Currently the guidelines of the “Pharmacy and Poisons Ordinance” of the Drugs Office of the Department of Health, disinfect products including disinfection alcohol are not classified as “drugs”, therefore there is no relevant legislation to regulate the quality of disinfection alcohol in Hong Kong. However, given methanol is a harmful substance, any traders marking disinfection alcohol products containing methanol may breach the “Consumer Goods Safety Regulations”. Relevant test results have been passed to the Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) for follow up actions.

Actual alcohol concentration

Among the 24 samples of disinfection alcohol, 22 labelled an alcohol concentration of 75%, 1 labelled 70% and another labelled 95%. Among the samples marked with 75% alcohol, 16 models were found with less than 75% ethanol and isopropyl alcohol concentration, of which 3 samples even measured a level of less than 70%, and the concentration of ethanol and isopropyl alcohol ranged from 62% to 69.1%. The actual ethanol concentration t of the 2 samples labelled 70% and 95% alcohol was only 65.7% and 89.3% respectively. Except for the sample labelled with 95% alcohol, all samples met the suggested 60% to 80% concentration of ethanol or isopropyl alcohol for general medical use by WHO. The results of this test showed that most of the alcohol sample labels were inconsistent with the actual claims, reflecting that the product quality was rather varied. Manufactures are urged to take immediate improvement actions.

Actual Net Volume

The test results also revealed that 16 of the 23 samples with labelled net volume was found with a lower actual volume. Among them, 3 samples were deviated by over 10%. The sample with the largest difference only contained 78.8% of net volume when compared to its claim volume on the product label. The test result has been referred to the C&ED.

The Council reminds traders not to take advantage of consumers by adopting unethical business practices at this critical anti-infection moment by selling products with false trade descriptions or unsafe consumer products. Otherwise, it may run the risk of violating the “Trade Descriptions Ordinance” or “Consumer Goods Safety Ordinance”. The Council will continue exchanging information with law enforcement agencies, and notify relevant departments once unscrupulous sales practices were identified, in order to safeguard public health and consumer rights.

Consumers should pay heed to the following when purchasing disinfection alcohol:

- Patronize reputable merchants and creditable brands, pay attention to the information on the package, including the production date and the expiry date. Also avoid purchasing products of unknown origin and without any product information;

- Since alcohol is organic solvent and may dissolve plastics, during purchase, consumers shall check the triangle sign formed by the arrows at the bottom of the container, containers marked with No. 2 high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or No. 5 polypropylene (PP) are more suitable for storing alcohol;

- Keep alcohol out of reach of children to avoid accidents;

- When using alcohol, stay away from the kitchen or open flames, especially when using alcohol spray;

- Methanol, ethanol and isopropyl alcohol are flammable organic solvent. Do not follow the rumors on the Internet to use the combustion method to distinguish methanol, ethanol and isopropyl alcohol, as it may cause burns or cause a fire;

- The smell of methanol is less pungent than that of ethanol and isopropyl alcohol, but it is rather difficult to be distinguished by consumers. For any doubts in the composition of disinfection alcohol in use, stop using it immediately and seek assistance from the C&ED if needed.

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