Cold and Flu : School Replaces Hand Sanitizer with Handwashing

Judy Benson

The town's three elementary schools appear to have become the first in the state to discontinue providing students with hand sanitizer, which came into many schools as a way to prevent the spread of the H1N1 flu virus when it surfaced three years ago. The district also is reducing the number of sanitizer dispensers in the middle and high schools and using a foam product instead of the liquid in the remaining dispensers, Superintendent James Lombardo said this week.

The reason?

"We came to the conclusion that, just as we wouldn't put cleaning supplies within reach of a kindergarten or first-grade student, we shouldn't put a product that's more than 60 percent alcohol within reach," he said. "It just seems like good sense that it not be available around really young kids."

Hand sanitizer, a waterless liquid intended to clean hands of germs, was removed from elementary schools over the past few months, he said, prompted both by administration concerns about it and a parent's complaint that their child had ingested some. In April, a California hospital issued a warning about the dangers of hand sanitizer after treating eight teenagers in local emergency rooms after they tried to get drunk by drinking or distilling it, according to news reports.

Locally, however, neither Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London nor The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich has treated any cases of sanitizer poisoning in recent months, hospital spokesmen said.

Vincent Mustaro, senior staff associate for policy service at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said he hasn't heard of other schools in the state taking the same action as yet, but the East Lyme decision did pique his interest. Officials at both the state Department of Public Health and the state Department of Education also said the issue of sanitizer misuse had not come to their attention.

Lombardo said all East Lyme elementary classrooms have sinks and, since public health experts say soap-and-water washing is a more effective than hand sanitizer in preventing the spread of germs, the district isn't sacrificing student health and hygiene by getting rid of the dispensers. At the middle and high schools, students also will be encouraged to wash with soap and water. The foam-based product in the remaining dispensers has a lower alcohol content than the liquid, he said.

The use and storage of hand sanitizer in town schools was addressed as part of a new policy on hazardous materials approved by the Board of Education on May 29. The policy encourages the use of "green cleaning" products and reducing exposure of students and staff to potentially hazardous chemicals in cleaning products.

Lombardo said there was no increase in student illnesses after the hand sanitizer was removed.

"Our absentee records showed there was no uptick," he said.

In its guidelines for schools about hand sanitizers, the state health department emphasizes that washing hands with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of disease.

Using alcohol-based products with more than 60 percent alcohol, such as Purell, Germ X or Sani Hands, the guidelines say, does reduce germs on the skin, "but (is) not effective if hands are visibly dirty." Non-alcohol based hand sanitizers, it warns, are not as effective in killing germs.

Patrick McCormack, director of the Uncas Health District, said he considers hand sanitizers "a good backup," but not a substitute for soap and running water. The district provides health services for seven local towns.

"It doesn't negate the need for a good hand washing," he said.

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