As reports of drinking hand sanitizer grow, so do fears for homeless people in Labrador

As reports of drinking hand sanitizer grow, so do fears for homeless people in Labrador

by Sue Jones
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People who work with vulnerable populations in Happy Valley-Goose Bay have noticed a disturbing trend.

Labrador Inn Manager Bill Dormody

Labrador Inn manager Bill Dormody holds up a bottle of hand sanitizer mixed with pop, as he displays other bottles of sanitizer he has found either mixed with water or sugary drinks. (CBC)

The manager of a hotel in Happy Valley-Goose Bay that serves as a for-profit shelter for homeless people is sounding the alarm after seeing residents taken to hospital because they drank hand sanitizer.

Bill Dormody says he has called paramedics over a dozen times in the last several weeks after finding residents incoherent, unresponsive, coughing blood and, at times, with blood coming from their ears and eyes. 

“I’m afraid someone is going to die,” Dormody told CBC News.

Hand sanitizer with high-alcohol content has become more easily accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic, and is far cheaper than liquor.

It’s the latest concern in a long line of issues plaguing the homeless community in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

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Health Canada has warned that even small amounts of hand sanitizer can be dangerous or fatal.

Dormody said he is constantly finding water bottles mixed with sanitizer. Even drinks like pop and Purity syrup have been used to mix with the disinfectant. 

“It’s quite horrific, actually. I find that they go from a completely normal state to a state of unresponsiveness, very, very limited motor skills, mimicking being under the influence of regular alcohol, but different,” Dormody said. 

“They go from completely coherent to incoherent immediately.”

Dormody said hotel staff have had to call police more than two dozen times in the last two weeks. 

The RCMP told CBC News it has noted an uptick in calls to the Labrador Inn, though the police force did not break down the number linked to possible alcohol or sanitizer poisoning.

According to police, there have been 58 calls for service to the inn so far this month, including reports of assault, disturbances, damage to property and sexual assault.

Hand Sanitizer

Bottles of empty hand sanitizer were gathered from around the Labrador Inn, after residents drank watered-down bottles of the liquid, which contains high alcohol contents. (Submitted by Bill Dormody)

Abuse of hand sanitizer is not just the Labrador Inn’s problem.

Jeff Matthews, the town’s homeless shelter’s co-ordinator and housing liaison, said he began to notice the product going missing a couple of months ago. 

“We started kind of wondering, you know, could possibly the clients be ingesting it? And unfortunately, a few clients actually told us that when they were hanging out with some of the others, that some of them had ingested the sanitizer,” said Matthews.

Matthews said everyone at the Housing Hub is concerned about the potential consequences.

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Some brands of hand sanitizer contain ethanol and methanol, which can render someone blind and damage their organs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. issued a formal warning in August 2020 about the dangers of drinking hand sanitizer after four people died and dozens became severely ill. 

“The struggle that we run into is trying to figure out if a client is intoxicated on just what we would call regular alcohol or if it is actually sanitizer,” Matthews said.

“Sometimes I guess there could be a bit of shame in admitting that you might have drank it.”

The Housing Hub has removed sanitizer from the entrance, and they have placed signs in the shelter warning of the risks.

A meeting has been scheduled with Labrador-Grenfell Health, he said. 

Indicative of a larger problem

Both Matthews and Dormody say the new phenomenon speaks to the severity of addiction in the community.

“A lot of our clientele here suffer from trauma-induced problems, and their only way to combat that is through either alcohol or drugs,” Dormody said. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Labrador-Grenfell Health said its mental health and addictions department works closely with clients and community stakeholders to educate them on substance misuse disorders.

Jeff Matthews

Jeff Matthews is the co-ordinator and housing liaison of the Housing Hub, a homeless shelter operated by the Nunatsiavut government in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. (CBC)

“Focusing on harm reduction helps reduce the stigma around substance misuse, helps keep people safe and helps create safe and supportive communities,” said the heath authority.

Officials added that an informational brochure has been developed by mental health and addictions teams “to raise awareness of the risks, risk mitigations, warning signs and responses in the event of a hazardous material consumption and poisoning.”

Meanwhile, Dormody said the Labrador Inn has never been busier, with more than 30 people taking shelter in the hotel.

“I think more has to be done. There has to be an awareness, and certainly we have to be as diligent as we have been and [will] continue to do so.”

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