News10NBC Investigates: Exclusive hand sanitizer testing results

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — As the number of COVID-19 cases in our community continues to rise, hand sanitizer has become a staple in stores, office buildings, and very likely your home.

In fact, many viewers told us they stocked up on disinfectants and sanitizers early in the pandemic. You may have bottles of sanitizer in the cabinet under your bathroom sink right now. That’s why tonight’s story is so important. After the FDA began warning this summer of toxins in some hand sanitizers, I started digging. And my investigation took me to a lab to find out what’s really in this bottle.

I visited the Fairport mother of three Taryn Reilly to talk to her about her family’s use of sanitizer. Reilly is an engineer and is meticulous at work and at home. She prefers for her little ones to use soap and water at home, but a back-up bottle of hand sanitizer is always close by in this health-conscious household. And Reilly is happy to have it. She remembers well those months when store shelves were empty.

"For a long time, that wasn’t readily available, so you were grabbing any kind of hand sanitizer that was out there to feel like you were going to be more safe,” she recalled.

Other viewers echoed that sentiment telling me they stocked up on any hand sanitizers they could find, no matter the brand. But this past summer on July 2, the FDA warned that dozens of sanitizers contained methanol, a toxic solvent that can cause blindness, hospitalizations, and death. Then on July 8, the FDA added about 30 more brands to the list, including Dollar Tree’s Assured Instant Hand Sanitizer.

That’s when I began investigating hand sanitizers. And I found that six days after the FDA added Assured Instant Hand Sanitizer to its list of potentially toxic sanitizers, my investigation revealed that Dollar Tree continued to sell the product. That’s because Dollar Tree initially disputed the FDA’s finding that their product was potentially dangerous.

A spokesman told me, "The third party manufacturer has confirmed that none of our product contains methanol or is otherwise contaminated."

Dollar Tree hires third-party, mostly foreign manufacturers to make its product. But it’s the sanitizer made by a Mexican manufacturer, 4e Global, that concerned the FDA. Viewers who had stocked up on the Assured brand were concerned as well and sent us their bottles to be tested. So News10NBC tested three bottles of Assured Instant Hand Sanitizer manufactured in Mexico. We labeled those samples A, B, and C. For comparison, we also tested Assured Instant Hand Sanitizer made in China which was sample D. And we also tested a bottle of Purell manufactured in the U.S. We labeled the Purell Sample E. The ingredient labels on all five bottles indicate they have 70% ethyl alcohol. The CDC says hand sanitizers must have at least 60% alcohol to kill the coronavirus.

I took each sample to ALS Environmental, a global provider of laboratory testing that meets more than 1,500 certifications by NELAP, The National Environmental Laboratory Program in New York. I asked technicians to test for the percentage of alcohol in each as well as the toxin, methanol.

Days later, I got the results to interpret the data, I enlisted the help of Jim Wesley, a chemist who formerly supervised the Monroe County Crime Lab. He said none of the samples has methanol. So then we checked alcohol content.

It showed that the percentage of alcohol of sample D, the Assured Instant Hand Sanitizer made in China is 71%, the correct amount of alcohol. The same is true of the Purell Hand Sanitizer. But that is not the case for the three bottles of Dollar Tree’s Assured Instant Hand Sanitizer made in Mexico. Our test result shows sample C has 60% alcohol which meets the CDC’s minimum requirement but is below the 70% indicated on the label. Sample A has only 52% alcohol, and Sample B has 53%.

When asked whether Samples A and B would kill the novel coronavirus, Wesley said, “So according to the research, not my research but CDC research that’s been published, the target is 60 percent, and as the level drops below 60 percent it’s less and less effective."

For consumers who depend on the product to keep this safe, the information is troubling.

“That’s shocking, especially in this time of the pandemic,” Reilly said. "You really expect that what’s on the label is true. And if you can’t rely on that, then there’s a lot that you would start to question."

So I reached out to Dollar Tree, and a spokesperson said, "In July, we worked with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and also fully cooperated with the third-party manufacturer’s recall, which included pulling the product from our shelves along with stopping sale at our registers. In July we also stopped doing business with the third-party manufacturer and have not received hand sanitizer from this manufacturer since May."

Days after News10 NBC’s investigation went viral on July 15, Dollar Tree did indeed pull all Assured Instant Hand Sanitizer made in Mexico from store shelves. But chemist, Jim Wesley wants to remind us that studies have shown the best COVID killer requires no alcohol at all.

"Soap and water is the gold standard. And this [hand sanitizer] is a good thing for your car or back up. But washing your hands is the way to go," Wesley said.

So if you’re one of the many who stocked up on hand sanitizer this summer, you need to make sure your products are not on the FDA’s list of more than 200 potentially toxic sanitizers. Click here to check the FDA list.

You should also make sure that your Assured Instant Hand Sanitizer was not manufactured in Mexico. I contacted the FDA about our findings, and a spokesman told me they don’t comment on third party testing, but they do independently check alcohol levels in sanitizing products.