Quality concerns caused SHA to not use 350,000 litres of sanitizer provided by federal government: union

Hand sanitizer stock is shown at a PPE-only store in downtown Winnipeg in September 2020.   (Jaison Empson/CBC - image credit)
Hand sanitizer stock is shown at a PPE-only store in downtown Winnipeg in September 2020. (Jaison Empson/CBC - image credit)

Quality concerns prompted Saskatchewan to shelve more than 350,000 litres of hand sanitizer that the federal government provided in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the president of a union representing health-care workers in the province.

"In late May of 2020 we were advised that this industrial strength hand sanitizer was in the workplaces and it was immediately being pulled because a test had revealed it was unsafe for pregnant women or nursing mothers," said Barbara Cape, president of SEIU-West, in an interview this week.

After nearly three years of being unused, the sanitizer has now expired. The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) is looking for a company haul away 559 pallets of the expired product from a Regina warehouse by the end of the month.

The details are part of a tender issued in December by the provincial government.

Saskatchewan Health Authority/SaskTenders
Saskatchewan Health Authority/SaskTenders

The sanitizer was a portion of medical supplies the Public Health Agency of Canada gave to provinces during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when products like hand sanitizer were hard to obtain.

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In a statement, the SHA did not directly respond to questions about why it didn't use the federally provided sanitizer. Instead, the SHA said that although it "very much appreciated" the PHAC shipment, the health authority was able to secure a "more effective sanitizer supply."

Health Canada did not respond when asked whether it was aware of any quality concerns with the sanitizer distributed to Saskatchewan. It would only say that products acquired by the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS) undergo quality verification.

"If the NESS cannot confirm that the asset conforms to technical specifications, as regulated by Health Canada, the asset is not cleared for distribution to the provinces and territories," said Health Canada in a statement.

The federal agency did say that it had issued a public advisory saying certain hand sanitizers may pose health risks.

According to province's tender documents, the expired sanitizers were produced by Kingkey MBC Life Technology Group in Guangdong, China, Irving in Saint John and Triton Cleaning Products in Calgary. Those companies' products are not included in a public advisory issued by Health Canada.

Saskatchewan is not the only province left with unused and now expired hand sanitizer.

Provinces across the country have been left with hundreds of thousands of litres of expired product.

Joseph Blondeau, head of clinical microbiology at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, said many hand sanitizers contain alcohol and/or hydrogen peroxide. Alcohol evaporates over time depending on how it is stored and hydrogen peroxide degrades over time, converting into water, he said. That means the efficacy of the product erodes over time.

The SHA estimated the disposal cost of the sanitizer at more than $100,000 and said the process must comply with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment's hazardous substances regulations.

Sanitizer is not typically considered a hazardous waste, but the large volume of the product means that it must be handled differently. For instance, some landfills are not permitted to accept large quantities of hand sanitizer, according to the Ministry of Environment.