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Schools start to wash hands of sanitizers

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer, once considered an easy eradicator in a germ-filled world, has lost some of its luster, including in some schools.

Recent studies have shown that sanitizers don’t kill all germs and may do more harm than good by creating a false sense of cleanliness – when people use hand sanitizer, they cut down on the soap-and-water washing, which works better to prevent the spread of illness.

Citing a potential risk to some students and sanitizers’ tendency to lead to less hand washing – along with labels on the bottles warning against their use by young children – officials in the Kennewick School District are working to remove them from classrooms, the Tri-City Herald reported earlier this month. While the district wasn’t providing the alcohol-based sanitizers, teachers and students were bringing it in, officials said.

In Spokane, hand sanitizer still appears on some classrooms’ start-of-the-year school supply lists.

But Laurie Moyer, health services coordinator for Spokane Public Schools, said she’s trying to get teachers to drop it.

Hand sanitizer doesn’t get the dirt off. And it doesn’t work when your hands are visibly dirty.

Also, because of its high alcohol content, hand sanitizer falls under the scope of laws pertaining to the delivery of medication to students, Moyer said. Technically, it requires a prescription – a teacher who asks kids to bring in and use hand sanitizer is essentially prescribing medication without a license, Moyer said.

While a small bottle would fall under rules that let students carry a day’s dose of medication to school, the student would have to carry a note from their parents permitting its use.

The use of hand sanitizer in classrooms has presented other problems elsewhere.

Some stem from that main ingredient: alcohol. It’s generally recommended that sanitizers be at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective. While alcohol doesn’t kill allergens, such as those in nuts, it’s good at killing many bacteria and viruses.

Reports of children in California using hand sanitizer to get drunk made national headlines in April. In May, a 15-year-old boy ignited hand sanitizer on a desk in a computer lab, setting a fire in a Woodburn, Ore., high school that caused about $6 million in damage. He and two other teens – who were with him at the time and tried to help put it out using paper towels – will have to pay restitution, the Oregonian newspaper reported.

Students in Spokane have carried out no such bad ideas, Moyer said, “thank goodness.”

But the alcohol does dry out children’s hands and can be harmful for those with skin disorders, she said.

And some parents oppose the use of sanitizers because of concerns about other chemicals it contains, she said.

“I have yet to look at a bottle of hand sanitizer – and I look at a lot of them – (that doesn’t say), ‘Keep out of reach of children,’ ” she said.

Triclosan, a synthetic ingredient found in many hand sanitizers and liquid soaps to fight bacterial contamination, is under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after studies on animals found that it alters hormone regulation. Other studies have suggested that triclosan helps bacteria grow more resistant to antibiotics.

Sanitizers are often ineffective against certain viruses, including norovirus, studies have found. Other research has found that health care workers who relied too much on hand sanitizers carried viable spores of a strain of severe diarrhea-causing bacteria on their hands.

In Mead, school nurse Allison Cowart said she’s heard no complaints from parents about their use.

“We know and understand that using hand sanitizer is a backup,” Cowart said.