Bottles of hand sanitiser have been removed or are under lock-down at several hospitals as thieves target the high-alcohol substance to get drunk.
The thefts are being blamed on "excessive alcohol marketing" which an addiction expert claims promotes a heavy drinking culture.
At Waikato Hospital there have been six incidents in the past year involving theft of sanitiser, including one involving a man caught taking 23 bottles. Another man took 15 bottles. One thief tried to drink the hand sanitiser as he ran from security staff.
Waikato District Health Board head of security Dean Ria said a health care assistant was "shoved" when he questioned a man removing a bottle of hand sanitiser from its stand.
"The concern for us is risk to staff and patients of these guys coming onsite to specifically steal Sterigel. The bottles themselves are not of great value or worth.
"It shouldn't be consumed as it can cause gastro-intestinal irritation. It can also cause irritation to the respiratory tract."
Waikato Hospital has now moved the bottles from public lobby areas after a prototype security holder was tested but was found to be uneconomic.
At Auckland's Capri Hospital, which specialises in addiction and mental health, clinic manager Michelle Smith said alcohol-based hand sanitiser was banned because of theft concerns.
She said all hospitals needed to take care around alcohol-based substances.
Capri Hospital uses alcohol-free hand sanitiser and is careful with cough medicine, nail polish remover and methylated spirits because of incidents in the past.
"You are getting pretty desperate and pretty unwell at that point," she said.
Those drinking the substances had lost a measure of impulse control and needed help, Smith said.
National addiction centre director Doug Sellman said he suspected it was a variety of people drinking hand sanitiser.
"Alcohol has been elevated to such a state in New Zealand that it's so linked with everything that's great. It's linked with success, it's linked with happiness.
"If you've got quite a significant amount of alcohol just sitting there in a bottle that can be accessed and mixed up to drink . . . it's what you would expect in a society like ours which is deliberately facilitating a heavy drinking culture."
Canterbury District Health Board chief medical officer Nigel Millar said there had been a couple of incidents of patients drinking hand sanitiser from bottles placed in clinical areas for staff use.
But the hospital would continue to promote sanitisers as they were important for hygiene.
In Invercargill, Queenstown and Dunedin, staff were aware of the risks of patients drinking the substance and precautions had been taken.
Medical toxicologist at the National Poison Centre Michael Beasley said there had been calls to the centre about hand sanitiser, though it was unclear how many had been drinking it to get drunk or for self-harm.
"We don't always hear about the ones in the hospital because often doctors are quite used to treating alcohol poisoning and they may not necessarily ring us with the dangers they see."
Beasley said hand sanitiser was a central nervous system repressant. In a worst-case scenario, it could lead to loss of consciousness and vomiting as well as difficulty breathing.
The alcohol content could be up to 62 per cent.
In 2011, it was reported that Rolleston Prison inmates had been caught getting drunk on hand sanitiser and the prison has since changed to an alcohol-free product.
In Sydney that year a man drank six bottles of hand sanitiser while being treated in hospital for alcohol addiction.
- Sunday Star Times
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