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Hand Sanitizer: The New Zima?

April 25, 2012 | Harry Kimball

Today, the Internet is "on fire" with stories about California teens getting drunk on hand sanitizer, a bellwether of what CBS News says "may be a fast-growing dangerous trend." We know of six teens who ended up in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning after drinking the stuff, and no wonder: it is 62% alcohol, much more potent than even hard liquor.

We often hear about alarming trends in teen substance abuse. In the 80s and 90s, I remember hearing a lot about the dangers of mouthwash. Recently, we were inundated with stories about teens inserting tampons soaked in hard alcohol for an undetectable buzz. With all of these horror stories, it seems almost obvious that hand sanitizer would be next. In any case, these are all quite alarming, and for good reason—they are very well outside what we would consider normal or acceptable behavior for our children.

And that is what is potentially harmful about this sort of story. As a society we like to pay attention to bizarre conduct on the part of a very few young people, at the same time that we turn a generally blind eye to the more widespread problem of "standard" teen drinking and the abuse of illicit drugs. The fact is that for many teens it is fairly easy to buy beer or marijuana or ecstasy. We should not let that fact escape us because of a sensational new "trend" that relies as much on media hype as on real world evidence for its existence.

If you consider hand sanitizer a threat to your child, or something she might come in contact with as a drug of abuse, by all means have a frank conversation with her in the same way you would discuss alcohol, or marijuana. However, I cannot in good conscience ignore Gawker writer Caity Weaver's inspired rejoinder to the frenzy of attention and hand-waving that has accompanied this story: "If you are a parent who wants to prevent your teen from getting sloshed off Mr. Clean's Tears, the first thing you should do is make sure they are aware this even exists as an option in the first place."

Just because this danger is likely inflated doesn't mean that the old stand-bys aren't still waiting for our kids. But at least parents can drop that old saw about the bridge. If your kid complains that everyone is doing something, ask him, "If everyone was drinking hand sanitizer, would you drink it, too?"

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