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Monday, April 15, 2024

The Explosive Legacy of the Pandemic Hand Sanitizer Boom

The commotion started sometime after they lost track of which month the pandemic was in. Leo Guzman and his 24-year-old daughter, Anita, could hear trucks beeping and people working at all hours of the evening in the unmarked warehouses next door to their mobile home in Carson, a suburb 15 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. Thousands of boxes wrapped in plastic were haphazardly pushed to the edges of the lot and stacked in piles as high as 20 feet, one of them leaning like a cardboard interpretation of the Tower of Pisa. Caution tape was strewn around some of the boxes, a blue tarp partly covered others. From where they live, Leo and Anita watched the boxes ascend for many months as the piles became part of their Covid surreality. 

At around 2 pm on September 30, 2021, Anita heard a large boom and felt their home shake, like in an earthquake. After a second boom—the sound of an explosion—Leo checked outside. The boxes were on fire. 

“Luckily, the wind was blowing that way,” Anita told me last spring from inside her residence, pointing away from the park and its 81 homes. Leo has lived here since before Anita was born and keeps an enviable plant collection around his porch. He remembers ashes falling onto his palm tree. 

The fire was the size of a city block. It took 17 hours and 200 firefighters to put out; five were injured. The boxes turned out to contain thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer, distributed by a beauty business called ArtNaturals. When firefighters finally cleared the scene, massive amounts of the liquid remained. It slowly washed down a nearby storm drain.

Five days after the fire was extinguished, people across southern LA County began reporting on social media and to their local officials a foul, overpowering odor. Some compared it to sewage, a bad perm, paint fumes, or death itself. Overwhelmingly most common descriptor: rotten eggs. The smell was especially pungent along the Dominguez Channel, which snakes through 15 miles of residences and retail and two oil refineries before emptying into the Pacific. 

The channel is no stranger to unpleasant aromas. More than 100 businesses are permitted by the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board to dump treated waste into the Dominguez. White clouds often drift from refinery smokestacks over local houses, and fire plumes from flares—a measure to get rid of excess gas—regularly glow on the horizon. 

This new smell, however, was much worse than anything the people in Carson and nearby towns were normally expected to tolerate. Some started waking up with headaches. Others feared they were being poisoned. For Leo, it seemed most unbearable when he got home from work as a night-shift baker; his throat hurt and being outside made him dizzy. 

Given the timing, it appeared likely that the explosion at ArtNaturals was to blame. But how exactly could the fire have resulted in the awful smell? And why was it spreading? Residents and local officials were mystified.

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Before vaccines, before masks, before much at all was known about how the novel coronavirus spread and whether it lived on surfaces (remember wiping down grocery bags with Lysol?), hand sanitizer took on a mythos as the essential protective elixir. In the first week of March 2020, year-over-year sales of the product jumped 470 percent. Panicked shoppers soon emptied shelves. California governor Gavin Newsom tweeted a photo of a 24-pack of 2-ounce bottles of Purell selling for $400.

On March 20, the US Food and Drug Administration announced that it was relaxing its regulations on hand sanitizer to “provide flexibility to help meet demand during this outbreak.” Those regulations, known as the Current Good Manufacturing Practices, had been in place since 1994 and included regularly updated rules on everything from record-keeping to product testing to packaging. The agency also paused the requirement under the Federal Food Drug & Cosmetics Act that sanitizer be sourced from pharmaceutical-grade ethanol, which is free of industrial toxins that are commonly found in fuel-grade ethanol. Businesses were still expected to test their sanitizers for benzene and other toxic compounds, but essentially on an honor system. The FDA noted that it did “not intend to take action against firms” for violations during the public health emergency. 

What happened next is a lesson about leaving disaster response to the whims of capitalism. Without the threat of an FDA inspection, thousands of companies that had never made or sold hand sanitizer before, let alone any other over-the-counter drug, immediately began distribution. From whiskey and vodka distillers to manufacturers of CBD oils, beauty products, and drilling fluids, anyone with access to ethanol seemed to rebrand, overnight, as a sanitizer maker. (This was in addition to a DIY frenzy. WIRED’s second-most-popular story of 2020 was “How to Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer.”)

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ArtNaturals was among these newcomers. The company, a brand of skin and hair care products, was founded in 2015 “out of a desire”—according to its website—“to free beauty from high prices, toxic chemicals, and all-around bad vibes.” Its formulations, tagged with wellness buzzwords like “plant-based” and “globally sourced,” are found at Target, Walmart, and especially Amazon. “We were born online, born on Amazon,” Joseph Nourollah, the CEO of ArtNaturals, once said at a beauty conference.

According to Emily Castellanos, a former copywriter at the company, opportunism was in ArtNaturals’ DNA. She says the company hired third-party agencies to offer select shoppers products like shampoo for as little as a dollar in exchange for Amazon reviews. “Usually they were great reviews,” she says. ArtNaturals often got new product ideas, Castellanos says, by copying what was already trending on Amazon, then making “the quantity bigger and the price point lower.” As new products went on sale, “huge jugs of jojoba oil, tea tree oil,” and the like would arrive by the truckload, to be bottled and labeled manually by primarily immigrant workers in the ArtNaturals warehouse, next to the mobile home park. 

The company shared the facilities with at least three other businesses, all run, according to court records, by Nourollah and members of his family. Their companies Day-to-Day Imports and OxGord have sold everything from car parts to knives to ladders to pregnancy pillows. Several of these products have been the subject of lawsuits by competitors alleging that Nourollah’s companies stole their designs. Numerous customers have claimed that Day-to-Day Imports and OxGord ladders suddenly collapsed and left them severely injured. The company settled with one roofer in 2019 and with two more individuals in 2021 and 2022; one other ladder injury lawsuit is pending. (ArtNaturals and its attorneys did not respond to repeated interview requests or questions submitted by email.)

ArtNaturals submitted paperwork to the FDA to sell hand sanitizer starting on April 8, 2020. By the summer, 8-ounce bottles of its “scent-free” sanitizer were sold at Walmart and other retailers. Osher Netkin, the company’s chief operating officer, posted on LinkedIn that ArtNaturals was giving hand sanitizer away to “hospitals, nursing homes, law enforcement and fire departments.” In another post, he wrote that he had access to truckloads of ethanol alcohol “that are able to ship today.” In Carson, members of the city council included bottles of ArtNaturals sanitizer in Covid care packages donated to families.

Within weeks of the FDA’s move to deregulate hand sanitizer, complaints started pouring in to the agency. Poison Control Centers across the country received thousands of reports of people seeking treatment for exposure to hand sanitizer that contained methanol, a highly toxic form of alcohol used in antifreeze that can cause skin and lung irritation, nausea, vomiting, headache, or worse. That summer, 17 people died after drinking sanitizer with methanol; a telltale sign was that people who ingested it showed up to hospitals with seizures and sudden loss of vision. (Although sanitizer made with pharmaceutical-grade ethanol isn’t safe to drink, it is not usually deadly.)

By mid-June the FDA had received so many complaints that it started compiling an online list of “hand sanitizers consumers should not use.” Because the agency does not have recall authority for over-the-counter drugs, the offending companies themselves were expected to pull products marked as unsafe. Consumers had to go out of their way to find the list and stay up to date as it got longer and longer. By the end of that first pandemic summer, nearly 200 types of sanitizer appeared on the list.

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ArtNaturals was, at that point, not on the list. Its sanitizer, labeled with a tasteful, millennial-friendly design that said it was vegan and infused with jojoba oil, was marketed as “safe for kids” and “a great bulk hand sanitizer pack for parents and teachers.” At least two school districts on the West Coast had purchased the sanitizer to distribute to students, in addition to two Ivy League universities. Then, in March 2021, a year into sales, an independent lab in Connecticut called Valisure announced that it had found benzene in the company’s sanitizer. Benzene, a widely used industrial chemical derived from petroleum, can be absorbed through the skin and is known to be a risk factor for leukemia.

ArtNaturals wasn’t alone: 44 of 260 hand sanitizer batches that Valisure tested were contaminated. But it had fared the worst, with benzene at eight times the legal limit—a limit that was only allowed under the FDA’s relaxed rules. Valisure petitioned the FDA to immediately request a recall of all the contaminated batches in its study, arguing that the agency had some recall authority under the unique circumstances. At the time, the FDA acknowledged receiving the petition. As the petition circulated, some customers requested refunds. Not long after, a horrified nurse in Arizona captured a photograph of ArtNaturals bottles on sale at her local Walmart for 50 cents, with a sign nearby saying that they used to be $2.97. (Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.)

By May 2021, a little over a month after the Valisure report came out, the LA County Fire Department showed up at ArtNaturals warehouses over concerns about boxes piling up. In south Los Angeles, where ArtNaturals was storing boxes at a second location, the fire department said that hand sanitizer gel appeared to be leaking out. On September 9, firefighters cited the company for the cardboard boxes on the Carson lot, warning that they blocked a fire access road. Three weeks later, the Guzmans heard the double explosion.

The arson division of the LA Sheriff’s Department said the cause was “undetermined” because they could not find an ignition source in security footage that the company provided. The day after the fire, ArtNaturals filed a property loss claim with its insurer, which says in a lawsuit that it paid out $266,000; ArtNaturals filed a counterclaim boldly asking for $92 million to cover destroyed merchandise, debris removal, and damages it says its insurer caused by not covering the other costs. 

A few days after the explosion, Yarely Molina was hired by the property’s landlord as a security guard to do fire watch because of concerns that the remaining debris might reignite. She says they told her the products that exploded “had some chemical that gave you cancer.” 

On October 4, the FDA issued an online alert “urging consumers not to use any ArtNaturals hand sanitizers”—not because of the fire, which is not mentioned in the alert, but because its own tests had also found “unacceptable levels” of benzene and other toxins in samples. (The FDA didn’t say whether it conducted the tests in response to the Valisure study.) The alert says the agency had been repeatedly trying to reach the company but received no response. 

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This would soon be the least of the company’s problems. The smell was starting to spread.

The odor of rotten eggs soon pervaded Carson. It hit Alejandro Rojas, a retired teacher who’d lived in the city for 23 years, at 3 am one morning when he was awoken by his dogs whining. The smell gave him a headache that reminded him of when he used to strip antiques. Tania Torres, who lived in a condo complex a few blocks from the Dominguez Channel, says the smell made her dogs lethargic and exacerbated her daughter’s asthma. David Ashman, a disaster management coordinator for LA County, says “the odor would force a coughing type of reaction. You couldn’t take deep breaths.”

By October 6, LA County and the regional air quality regulator identified the smell as hydrogen sulfide, according to emails obtained by WIRED in a public records act request. But they didn’t initially connect it with the ArtNaturals fire. The gas can be produced by any number of sources, including algae bloom decay and effluent from refineries. If a waterway has low oxygen levels for whatever reason, organic matter can die off, releasing harmful amounts of hydrogen sulfide into the air.

In California, hydrogen sulfide is considered a nuisance at 30 parts per billion because of its characteristic smell. While the gas is known to be deadly at the much higher levels that workers are sometimes exposed to on hog farmsoil refinerieswaste treatment plants, and other dangerous work sites, low levels can irritate the sinuses, according to the federal government’s toxic-substances registry. Moderate exposure causes headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, coughing, and difficulty breathing. (The document does not define the distinction between “low level” and “moderate.”) 

The organic matter theory was quickly determined to be the most likely explanation. In a press conference on October 10, county representatives claimed that hydrogen sulfide levels in the air were “elevated” but not unsafe. They did not share what those levels were. 

The county declared the smell a “nuisance.” It said that people would soon be compensated for air purifiers, but that it was not prepared to pay for hotel rooms. The following day, in a virtual city council meeting that hundreds of angry residents signed in to, the county relented on the hotels. Vouchers were provided through a “relocation” program. It was not an evacuation, so people had to be proactive about applying for vouchers, and only those with physical addresses were eligible. 

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Ana Meni, the daughter of Samoan immigrants who has lived in Carson for all her 43 years and worked for the city for 25 of them, was deeply frustrated with the local government’s response. At the very least, she says, the city could have sent a mass alert to all residents, as they would do in an emergency. 

Meni and a neighbor soon started a Facebook group, City of Carson Public Health Concerns, where residents began to share their stories. The page became a jumping-off point for on-the-ground protests and organizing. Meni helped people fill out their reimbursement applications and went door-to-door trying to persuade her neighbors to leave. “A lot of our seniors told me, ‘No one's going to take us away,’” she recalls. “But the main message from a lot of them was, ‘If it’s as bad as you say it is, the government would make us go.’ That was just very mentally heartbreaking.” 

By the second week of the odor, a resident noticed that the mailboxes in her condo had turned black overnight, a sign of a chemical reaction between aluminum and hydrogen sulfide. Others spotted workers spraying something from hoses into the channel. LA County Public Works began applying a deodorizer called Epoleon and said the smell would clear within five days.

On October 14, the Department of Public Health sent a notice to local doctors that people were reporting dizziness, vomiting, and shortness of breath. It still described the hydrogen sulfide levels as “elevated, but not toxic” and maintained that “the source appears to be naturally decaying organic material.”

(LA County and its Departments of Public Health and Public Works have not answered questions sent by WIRED over the course of several months. Southern California’s air quality department referred questions about health back to the Department of Public Health. A spokesperson for the Public Health Department said, “We cannot comment on this matter due to pending litigation” provided a link to a November 2021 update on the "odor event.")

The principal of a middle school within a couple blocks of the channel called regional air quality officials on the morning of October 15, before students arrived, to report that the smell was inside classrooms. When agency inspectors monitored the campus, they detected indoor levels as high as 200 parts per billion, according to internal emails. (The toxic-substances registry says that “whether children are more sensitive to hydrogen sulfide exposure than adults is not known.”) Hazmat crews advised the principal to air out the building and keep the HVAC system running for two hours before students arrived.

Regional air quality officials installed a new hydrogen sulfide monitor along the banks of the channel in Carson. On the nights of October 15 and 17, it recorded levels hundreds of times higher than the state nuisance level, as high as 13,000 parts per billion at one point. “They kept saying there was no evidence it would cause any long-term harm, when the real answer was, we didn’t know if it would or not,” says one local official, who spoke to WIRED on condition of anonymity about the county health department’s response. 

On October 18, Carson canceled an annual citywide earthquake drill after city employees reported experiencing “extreme discomfort (even indoors) due to the odor,” according to an email from a city risk manager obtained by WIRED.

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The smell was still omnipresent by the third week. An emergency manager with the City of Carson said in one email that “the County’s plan for solving the problem seems to have failed.” At a press conference on October 25, Lula Davis-Holmes, the mayor of Carson, announced a new city order stating that the gas did in fact pose an emergency. City councilmember Jawane Hilton said his two young children had just been diagnosed with ear infections. He also asserted that a wealthier community wouldn’t have had to wait 22 days for a resolution.

By November 19, seven weeks after the smell began, 3,400 families were temporarily living in hotels and 40,000 air purifiers had been delivered to residents’ homes. That week, some learned from hotel receptionists that their stays would not be extended another week. The county said the issue was resolved. Hydrogen sulfide levels had dropped below 30 parts per billion at most monitors. A local company that markets “proprietary nanobubble treatment” later put out a press release taking credit for getting rid of the smell.

On December 3, the regional air quality department and the LA water board announced that they had concluded their investigation into the source of the smell. Investigators found pollutants that included benzene, methanol, and ethanol in the channel. They said that the pollutants depleted oxygen in the water and after breaking down in the anaerobic conditions had unleashed the hydrogen sulfide. The investigators had by now traced the runoff to the ArtNaturals warehouse fire.

The report, confirming what some residents had long suspected, was little solace. After their hotel stays were terminated, Tania Torres says, “We had nowhere else to go, and it still smelled.” Her asthmatic daughter had fallen into depression working as a therapist from the hotel, but back at home Torres says she had trouble breathing and experienced headaches and burning eyes for weeks. Meni’s sister, who teaches at an elementary school near the channel, went to the emergency room to stop a 10-hour nosebleed. On December 4, an internal regional air quality department memo said the agency had received 75 new odor complaints in the previous two weeks. 

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A few weeks after the investigators in Carson published their report, the FDA reinstated its pre-pandemic regulations on hand sanitizer. Now that supply had caught up to demand, the agency said, the relaxed rules were no longer appropriate. Manufacturers were not allowed to sell or donate any sanitizer produced under the rules starting in March 2022, and they would need to find some way to destroy it. 

While the agency’s move surely resulted in fewer bottles of tainted sanitizer reaching the market, it created a new problem. Discarded sanitizer is supposed to be separated from its plastic bottles and treated as hazardous waste. One trade group, the National Association of Chemical Distributors, complained to the FDA that the process would be “inefficient,” “expensive,” and “time-consuming.” The group also asserted that “it is more costly to dispose of the product than to give it away.” The assertion does not acknowledge the numerous safety problems found in pandemic sanitizer. 

Regardless, several school districts last year received donations of pandemic-regulation hand sanitizer worth tens of thousands of dollars. In June 2022, the FDA added a pandemic hand sanitizer from the Arizona-based brand Healing Solutions to its list of sanitizers that consumers should not use because of unspecified manufacturing issues. Copa Health, a behavior treatment center in Mesa, Arizona, donated $68,000 worth of Healing Solutions hand sanitizer to Mesa Public Schools, the largest district in the state, according to donation records obtained by WIRED. In October, after being contacted for comment, the school district sent a letter to its schools telling them to dispose of the bottles. “Mesa Public Schools was not made aware by the FDA or provider that the hand sanitizer was on the FDA’s Do Not Use List,” a district spokesperson wrote via email. Reached for comment, Copa Health’s marketing director, Linda Torkelson, wrote, “Thanks for reaching out but we would not be interested.” (Neither she nor other Copy Health executives responded to follow-up messages.) 

People who work in the waste management industry say that they have been regularly fielding calls from people trying to get rid of hand sanitizer. “It’s been prohibitively expensive for the big jobs that we’ve talked to, so they haven’t followed through with us,” says Tony Orlando, the president of a California company that disposes of hazardous waste.

Several fires involving large amounts of unsellable hand sanitizer have broken out across the country in the past year, from Dallas to downtown Los Angeles. In Elgin, Illinois, boxes of hand sanitizer under recall caught fire outside an abandoned building across the street from a high school. In August 2022, in Wharton, Texas, what the local police department described as a “large quantity of hand sanitizer” caught fire, prompting a temporary shelter-in-place order. Near the border in Brownsville, Texas, a warehouse storing pallets of recalled hand sanitizer ignited that same month, and then again on two more occasions.

Outside Oklahoma City, hand-sanitizer-fueled fires broke out at factories and warehouses in August and October of 2022. The sites are allegedly operated by developer Brannan Bordwine, whose company faces $6.6 million in proposed fines for allegedly dumping and burying hand sanitizer in an open pit and for the fires, one of which a fire marshal announced may have been set intentionally. Bordwine did not respond to requests for comment. On April 3, 2023, fire crews in Moreno Valley, California, put out a fire that erupted among pallets of hand sanitizer that had been sitting outside for three weeks.

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In a statement to WIRED, an FDA spokesperson defended the agency’s handling of the hand sanitizer shortage, writing that “the FDA continues to test hand sanitizer products and proactively work with companies, when appropriate, to recall products and encourage retailers to remove products from store shelves and online marketplaces when quality issues arise.” The agency declined to answer specific questions about methanol poisonings, benzene contamination, hand sanitizer fires, or ArtNaturals.

Last summer, Jill Johnston and Arbor Quist, environmental epidemiologists at the University of Southern California, met with Carson residents to follow up on their health. The two scientists were conducting an ongoing survey on the health effects of exposure to hydrogen sulfide, which they say are not well understood. According to preliminary findings from 108 subjects, 81 reported headaches, 78 reported dizziness, and seven went to the emergency room. About half reported burning eyes; fatigue; and difficulty breathing, concentrating, and sleeping, as well as anxiety and depression. 

Carson residents still become emotional when they recount the experience—the disrespect they felt from county officials, the fear of the smell returning or of something worse happening later on. In the last three months of 2022, nearly a year after the crisis was considered over, there were 33 complaints from zip codes in Carson, Gardena, and other nearby cities about a rotten egg odor. Some described it getting into their homes, and several said that the smell is “constant.”

In a way, the explosion was a more intense form of what residents have lived with for decades. The largest oil refinery on the West Coast, run by Marathon Petroleum, sits on the Dominguez Channel within a few miles of homes and elementary schools. A few weeks before the hand sanitizer fire, it had massive flares that looked like large fire balls, and some locals think it could have played a role in the smell as well. Now, says Ana Meni, “we’re more aware of things that typically we were just accustomed to.”

Joseph Nourollah and his brothers currently face criminal charges in LA County for the safety violations the fire department documented prior to the fire. They have pleaded not guilty. They are no longer allowed to sell hand sanitizer, after the FDA visited their warehouses in the spring of 2022 and found “that the quality assurance within your facility is not functioning in accordance with requirements.” The company told the FDA it would cease production. The family and its companies also face a $12 million fine from the regional air quality board and the county water board for allegedly polluting the Dominguez Channel and causing the smell, but a hearing to finalize the fine was delayed until December.

ArtNaturals hand sanitizer is listed as out of stock on its website, but it is still available on Walmart.com.

Source images of the fire in image two and the map in image four by Getty Images. 

Updated 6/1/23 at 12:30pmA previous version of this article stated that the FDA declined to answer specific questions about methanol poisonings, benzene contamination, and ArtNaturals. They have provided answers.


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