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It’s time we kid-proof hand sanitizers in public places, medical researchers warn

January 22, 2021, 2:00 AM UTC

It’s yet another unintended consequence of a global pandemic—parents, watch your kids around those hand sanitizer stations.

Physicians and researchers in France and India are warning of the risks of alcohol-based hand sanitizer—particularly eye-level stations that risk squirting the liquid into small faces—after hundreds of cases of related pediatric eye injuries were reported in just a five-month period after the start of the pandemic in France alone.

Retailers, offices, and airports have spent huge sums on retrofitting their locations to make them COVID-19 safe as they attempted to adapt to the new normal in the second and third quarters of last year. In September, for example, Costco said it had spent $281 million on virus-related expenses in its latest quarter, though that covers everything from sanitizing its stores to employee bonuses, as Fortune reported. Walmart spent $1.2 billion in the second quarter of last year alone.

Those efforts have transformed the look, and feel, of a simple trip to the grocery store or the mall—and one of the most visible signs of that shift have been the numerous hand sanitation stations. And yet new safety challenges continued to emerge.

Two studies, released in the journal JAMA Opthamology on Thursday, warned of the new risks to children. In France, a group of physicians and researchers tracked a sevenfold year-on-year increase of hand-sanitizer-related eye injuries reported to the country’s poison control center between April and August 2020, up to 232 cases. The number of children admitted to a pediatric eye hospital in Paris for such injuries rose to 16 over that period, from just one child the year before.

The French study noted that a large number of the eye injury cases occurred in public places: Nearly 50 occurred in shops and malls alone, while others happened in restaurants, a sports arena, a movie theater, and a shopping mall. In all cases, the hand sanitizer dispensers were made available because of the pandemic, the researchers said.

Those injuries also picked up sharply as France’s nationwide spring lockdown ended, and public spaces reopened, the researchers noted—bringing with them ubiquitous hand sanitizing stations.

Another group of researchers and physicians, at Grewal Eye Institute in India, tracked two case studies involving small children who needed treatment for eye injuries.

Both groups came to the same conclusion: Many of the hand sanitizing stations are located at roughly waist level for adults. In other words, they’re perfectly at eye level for small children, with dire injuries and even blindness if eyes are not washed out and treated quickly.

While the vast majority of cases are mild if children’s eyes are washed out quickly, longer exposure can require more serious treatment and even lead to blindness.

“Children are naturally curious and great mimics. We have seen in the recent past unintended adverse consequences for young children with new products, such as laundry detergent pods, which are appealing to children and can cause eye injury,” said Kathryn Colby, chair of the department of ophthalmology at New York University, in a corresponding commentary piece.

“With the current widespread use of hand sanitizer in public places, it is not unexpected that young children would be drawn to these dispensers, many of which appear to be inadvertently designed to facilitate contact between the hand sanitizer and young eyes.”

The researchers recommended a reliance on hand washing, redesigning or offering child-size sanitizer stations, and warning parents of the risks.

The phenomenon is likely widespread. Local media from Spain to Israel have reported sharp rises in pediatric eye injuries tied to hand sanitizers, while optometrist associations have also noted reports of higher hand sanitizer injuries.

Of course, if children are more vulnerable to sprays of eye-level hand sanitizer, adults are not immune, either—so watch yourself around the hand sanitizing stations.