Saskatoon mom concerned Sask. Health Authority using hand sanitizer that's unsafe for pregnant, nursing people

A Saskatoon mother is concerned the Saskatchewan Health Authority is using a hand sanitizing gel that may be harmful to individuals who are nursing or breastfeeding. 

A May 21 memo obtained by CBC sent to staff across the authority indicated a type of Health Care Plus Sanitizing Hand Gel "is unsafe for pregnant and nursing women" as it uses "technical grade ethanol alcohol" as opposed to medical grade isopropyl alcohol.

The product has been used in some authority facilities in recent weeks, as global demand for medical grade isopropyl alcohol has been growing exponentially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The fact the product is even in the hospital is a red flag for Saskatoon mom Amanda Harder.

"There's that element of trust," she said.

"We have the right to know what we're putting on our bodies and I think when there's governing bodies, like the Sask. Health Authority, we expect safety standards and we expect the products we are using are safe." 

Supplied/Amanda Harder

Harder, who founded the group Mothers Empowering Mothers, is well-connected in the Saskatoon parental community. Speaking as an individual, she said the fact this product is even in hospitals is concerning. 

"I do think this pandemic needs to be taken with the utmost caution, but that being said, I don't think that excuses them from providing full disclosure or bypassing any safety standards," she said. 

The product has been approved by Health Canada for use in hand sanitizers, but it comes with many conditions including directions that it only be used by adults, that it contains a warning for pregnant and nursing individuals and that it clearly lists its medical ingredients. 

"Health Canada has put these specific conditions in place to minimize potential risks, while continuing to ensure sufficient supply of hand sanitizer during this public health crisis," Health Canada states on its website. 

"Once the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end, or should the increased demand during the pandemic no longer necessitate production of technical-grade ethanol, all time-limited conditional approvals granted by Health Canada will cease to be valid." 

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Harder said the SHA should be providing better alternatives for both its staff and the public, pointing to things like portable hand-washing stations that could be installed at the facilities.

She said while she understands use of the product may be low-risk for her and her family, she has concerns for people pregnant and nursing individuals who regularly frequent the hospital for treatment or work. 

"That's a big risk for them," she said. Based on conversations she's had with other moms in Saskatoon, she says there's a lot of feelings of being let down, disappointment and feelings their trust was taken advantage of. 

CBC Saskatchewan reached out to the Saskatchewan Health Authority numerous times over the weekend to get insight into why the product is being used, how long it was used for and where it was used, but a response was not received.

The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, which represents registered nurses across the province, also issued a warning to their staff about the product and has raised concerns with the authority directly, as there were no warnings posted in or around the product. 

Tracy Zambory, president of the union, said while the health authority is now putting up posters informing people about risks associated with the hand sanitizer, they were slow to go up when the product appeared on site. 

She says while there was no malice behind the delay, she said it's a symptom of how busy the system is, as the health authority resumed some of its services on May 19, while at the same time, has been making service changes at rural hospitals.

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"What's going on is an overload of trying to close, trying to open, it's all of these things that are happening that unfortunately a very important situation fell a little bit between the cracks," she said. 

"I think part of it is having so many balls in the air," she said. "It seems like communication is far down on the list." 

Zambory said this has been a pattern when it comes to the Saskatchewan Health Authority and the provincial government, as the union has said on previous occasions that transparency has been lacking in a big way.

"They're not transparent and there isn't a lot of conversations or communication that happens in a timely fashion, this is one of the potential outcomes," she said. 

Zambory said she's pleased warning signs about the hand sanitizing gel are now being posted and say the health authority has confirmed to the nurses' union it is working to source a new supply of hand sanitizer.