The Sunday Mail
Veronica Gwaze and Emmanuel Kafe
Dr Farai Mudzengi, a general practitioner, recently had one of the strangest cases imaginable.
A teenager presented with “serious stomach pains” and it was later discovered that he had consumed a sanitiser.
“I attended to a young man who drank some hand sanitiser and developed serious stomach pains.
“The alcohol in the sanitisers is dangerous; it should not be swallowed and what we should really look at is why these people are drinking it in the first place,” he told The Sunday Mail Society.
It is, however, not an isolated incident.
In Highfield, a 21-year-old man was recently admitted at a private clinic after drinking hand sanitiser.
These victims could be the lucky ones.
There are reports that a man in Concession (Mashonaland Central) succumbed after trying out a hand sanitiser as a recreational drug.
But it could not be independently verified if the death was caused by consuming the liquid.
While hand sanitisers, which contain the recommended 70 percent alcohol needed to kill viruses and bacteria, continue to roll off manufacturing production lines at an industrial scale, as the fight against coronavirus continues, worrying cases of individuals who are drinking the liquid as a recreational drug continue to grow.
As part of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) needed to prevent the spread of Covid-19, they are now commonplace.
Current health protocols recommend routine hand sanitisation before entering public places such as supermarkets, retail outlets and workplaces.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) specifically recommends the use of hand sanitisers that contain 70 percent alcohol.
Covid-19 Task Force chair Dr Agnes Mahomva told The Sunday Mail Society in an interview that taking hand sanitisers could come with serious consequences as they were not meant for human consumption.
“The public should desist from taking sanitisers; that comes with very serious consequences health-wise.
“The alcohol contained in sanitisers is meant to kill viruses. It is for external use, so imagine the damage that it will do to your lungs or intestines and other parts if consumed,” said Dr Mahomva.
She encouraged communities to report such cases to help the Government fight the spread of Covid-19 through eliminating abuse of PPEs.
The taskforce, however, has not yet received reports of this practice.
But this has not stopped individuals, especially youths in communities, from trying to tap the alcohol in sanitisers through various experiments.
While gel sanitisers are expensive, the liquid version is cheap.
An undercover investigation by this publication revealed that sniffing, smoking and injecting alcohol-based hand sanitisers and other alcohol-related substances has become prevalent in most high-density areas.
However, a man from Mbare, who preferred to be identified as Timothy, said not all of the sanitisers are being abused.
“Some people are drinking the sanitisers, but it is not all types that they take. I am not sure which type exactly they prefer. This is still new, so most of the guys are trying to keep it a secret . . .
“Others are using it to make another drug. They mix the sanitiser with other stuff and consume it via shisha pipes to get high,” he revealed.
In Glen View, some youths are mixing hand sanitisers with crystal particles found on baby diapers and another undisclosed substance to try and make a recreational drug through extracting the alcohol.
“The guys buy diapers just to extract those crystals and then mix with the sanitiser and other stuff. In fact, they say it works much better and faster than other drugs,” said another teenager, who refused to be identified.
In another teeming suburb, this crew met a frail-looking 30-year-old Anderson, who admitted to abusing the personal protective equipment.
“Normal beer is not for us, and we cannot afford it everyday, we need something strong — stronger than sniffing glue, and hand sanitisers and meth spirits are proving handy,” he said.
“Injecting the liquid (hand sanitisers) is a better option because it quickly runs through blood veins, thus we quickly get high,” he said.
“We use hand sanitisers or methylated spirit, which we mix with dissolved crystal meth if we are to inject ourselves. Sniffing is not enough and takes long for you to get high,” explained Anderson.
Alcohol-based sanitisers and methylated spirit, his colleagues weighed in, were affordable and readily available on the market.
Needles and ignorance
“We have people who deliver syringes, sanitisers and cotton wool to us. For US$1 we can get as many as five syringes. The sanitisers are much better than sniffing glue,” adds Anderson.
They share the needles and are not moved by the possibility of contracting diseases like HIV/Aids or herpes.
Another junkie popularly known as Uncle Shangwa said he was now accustomed to the effects of using sanitisers as a recreational drug.
“It makes me feel numb; if you pinch me, I would not feel a thing.
“It sometimes makes me feel sick and causes what we call downs — when you become overly high, it causes vomiting, fever and weakness.”
‘Senseless bush distillation’
Investigations have shown that the addicts are using salt to separate alcohol from gel in hand sanitisers before they drink or inject the substance.
“We use an easy and cheap way to distil the alcohol.
“By mixing salt, sanitiser and listerine together, we come up with a ‘hand sanity mix’ or ‘tears’,” revealed George in Epworth, who we later learnt was a former chemistry teacher at a local school.
However, Dr Isaac Madziya of Great Zimbabwe University (GZU) department of Natural Sciences reckons ingredients like isopropyl myristate, propylene glycol and tocopheryl acetate are difficult to distil out of the hand sanitiser.
“It is possible to separate hand sanitiser ingredients to their original components but this cannot be done by common man; besides, doing so is senseless. Drinking sanitisers is extremely dangerous,” said Dr Madziya.
Dr Takudzwa Mutsvanga, a health expert, said the alcohol in sanitisers was meant to destroy viruses and bacteria, thus was not fit for human consumption.
“Hand sanitisers contain overdoses of alcohol, which makes them unsafe to drink.
“The liquid has a very high potential of damaging the liver and possibly producing cancer-causing fluids,” he said.
The abuse of sanitisers by injecting or ingesting it could lead to damage to the brain, heart and immune system,” Dr Donald Maseko adds.
He warned that hand sanitisers did not often contain ethanol, used in most alcoholic beverages, but rather isopropyl alcohol.
“Sanitisers are essential in the fight against Covid-19 as people must routinely keep their hands clean to avoid spreading the virus.
“When digesting isopropyl, a user could face serious intoxication with a good chance of overdosing on alcohol and suffering liver and nervous system damage,” he said.
“Even though you might get a quick fix and a high from it, the benefit is definitely short but has long-term consequences.”
He said isopropyl is a foreign molecule to the body and would not be able to be metabolised easily by the liver, thus it
goes down to the kidneys and causes damage.