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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Hand Sanitizers and Static Electricity are a Dangerous Mix

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Hand sanitizer is commonly used by most people, and especially used in hospitals, schools, daycares, and grocery stores. Although these alcohol-based products are said to eliminate bacteria, they can also be dangerous.

A 12-year-old cancer survivor was admitted to the hospital after a head injury. On the day she was expected to go home, she was treated for second and third-degree burns on 20 percent of her body. She will undergo at least two ski grafts to treat the burns, but is expected to make a full recovery.

The girl was working on an art project shortly before her body caught fire and she ran to the nurse’s station covered in flames. Her dad was napping in her room at the time, but recalls his daughter playing – trying to make static electricity with the bed sheets after she learned about static charge in school.

Earlier in the day, olive oil was used to remove some adhesive on her head that was left over from an EEG exam. It is believed that some of the olive oil may have been on her shirt, possibly from touching her hair and then her shirt. After her art project, the child apparently soaked a paper towel in hand sanitizer to clean her bedside table and wipe off her shirt. A fire investigator believes the fire was caused from a combination of the hand sanitizer, olive oil, and static electricity; the investigation is ongoing.

The hospital said they will now use conditioner in lieu of the olive oil to remove the glue. While the olive oil may have played a significant role in this accident, it appears that most hand sanitizer products contain a high volume of alcohol that when combined with static electricity can cause a fire. Similar incidents have happened in the past which led to fire preventive groups such as the Kansas State Fire Marshal to publish hazardous side effects of hand sanitizers. In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) also provides a set of recommendations for minimizing fire risks with these products. For example, they advise healthcare providers to include clearly written instructions on how to use the hand rub dispenser. The instructions should include warnings against using excessive amounts of the hand sanitizer. The group also recommended that spills be cleaned up immediately water, ventilating the area, and removing all possible sources of ignition.

Mark E. Bruley, CCE, is Vice President for Accident and Forensic Investigation, said "I've never heard of a fire of that magnitude involving hand sanitizers." He says sanitizer fires are extremely rare but possible, and even a very small amount of static electricity could have ignited vapor from the sanitizer. These means that even daily hospital duties are cause for concern. Sliding a patient from a stretcher to a bed or sheets sliding on a plastic mattress can create a shock. What about the elderly, or anyone for that matter, who don’t pick up their feet when they walk. All these things, and more, can build up static electricity. Given the increased use of hand sanitizers, this problem could explode in hospitals nationwide.

The hospital physician-in-chief at Oregon Health & Science University's Doernbecher Children's Hospital where the girl was injured said that the placement of their hand sanitizer dispensers meet industry standards, but the hospital staff will review procedures to see if there are any additional adjustments to promote safety. Let’s hope all hospitals, doctor’s offices, daycares, etc. are now aware of this increased danger with hand sanitizers and implement changes now to keep everyone safe.