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Harvard Advises Affiliates to Stop Use of Hand Sanitizers Containing Benzene

Harvard advised affiliates to discontinue use of hand sanitzers that contain benzene, including one brand purchased by the University.
Harvard advised affiliates to discontinue use of hand sanitzers that contain benzene, including one brand purchased by the University. By Kai R. McNamee
By Alex M. Koller and Taylor C. Peterman, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Environmental Health and Safety, a department of Campus Services, advised University affiliates to suspend use of hand sanitizers containing the human carcinogen benzene, including one brand purchased by Harvard, in a Monday email.

The guidance comes after pharmaceutical testing company Valisure published a March 24 citizen petition identifying brands of hand sanitizer that it found contain benzene, a chemical known to cause cancer in humans.

Though temporary U.S. Food and Drug Administration policies during the Covid-19 pandemic currently permit the concentration of up to two parts per million of benzene in hand sanitizer products, HEHS Managing Director William VanSchalkwyk issued a notice in the email to Harvard affiliates to forgo use of hand sanitizers containing any detectable amount of benzene based on Valisure’s data.

“Harvard University has learned through recent press coverage that a private pharmaceutical testing company has detected benzene in some brands of hand sanitizer,” the email reads. “Although the FDA recently allowed low levels of benzene in hand sanitizer, certain batches of these brands have been found to exceed those interim limits. Long-term exposure to benzene has been linked to an increased risk for certain types of cancer.”

VanSchalkwyk wrote that Harvard affiliates should “stop using and distributing” the hand sanitizer brands listed in the Valisure report “out of an abundance of caution.” Harvard Campus Services and HEHS will collect the products.

One of the brands containing benzene — artnaturals — was purchased by Harvard as part of its Covid-19 response, according to the HEHS website. The University is working to notify the departments that have purchased this brand from the University’s Campus Warehouse.

“The FDA has not issued a recall of these products, however, when Harvard learned that one brand of hand sanitizer in question, artnaturals, had been distributed on campus, out of an abundance of caution, we asked the University community to stop using it and made arrangements to have it collected,” Harvard Campus Services spokesperson Michael Conner wrote in an emailed statement. “This process is ongoing.”

Harvard is currently testing alternatives to artnaturals hand sanitizer, per the HEHS website.

“Harvard University is working to test alcohol-based hand sanitizer in its Campus Services Warehouse before issuing replacements for the artnaturals product,” the website states. “In the interim, it is recommended that you use other brands or use soap and water to clean your hands.”

Artnaturals did not respond to a request for comment.

Some schools, including the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the Harvard Kennedy School, in addition to Harvard University Dining Services, do not have hand sanitizer containing benzene in use, according to their respective spokespeople.

—Staff writer Alex M. Koller can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @alexmkoller.

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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