The title of this post is unfair. I have no reason to think that Purell causes cancer. My point is that after concerns were raised about an influenza epidemic, public buildings all over the country quickly installed machines that dispense shots of hand sanitizer. My work place installed them all around the campus. Why did this happen? Because we assumed that the only risk was illness from bacteria and that there was some significant anti-illness benefit from using hand sanitizer. Why did we make those assumptions?
Since then, I've asked my friends, half jokingly, "Does Purell Cause Cancer"? I wanted to drive home the point that it didn't seem like anyone had done a risk-benefit (or risk-risk) analysis. I've been told repeatedly that Purell is harmless. But that's not necessarily correct even if Purell doesn't cause cancer. If we are spending money for hand sanitizer dispensers and Purell (or its generic equivalents), but those expenditures don't benefit the public, then the decision to go ape over Purell is not exactly harmless.
Over the last couple years (that is, during the Purell craze), I have been asking my friends, including my doctor friends, whether repeatedly splashing one's hands with Purell makes a bit of difference. They have no idea. It's a relevant question, isn't it? After all, if Purell made a difference, you would expect work places that installed dispensers to have lowered the incidence of illness among their workforces. Just last week, I asked a doctor working in the public health field if he knew any studies on the topic. He had no idea.
So, check out this story in today's Washington Post. It reviews data that suggests that hand sanitizer may make little or no difference in preventing illness.