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HEALTHCARE : Swine flu anxiety unleashes epidemic of hand sanitizing

November 14, 2009|Ronald D. White

Silvia Cordero eyed the row of disinfecting gels, soaps and hand sanitizers at a Rite Aid in Culver City with the intensity of a drill sergeant preparing troops for a skirmish with the H1N1 flu virus.

"They're going in my car, in my desk at work and in my sons' backpacks," the 28-year-old said. "I don't really like the way any of them feel on my skin, but they might help keep us healthy."

Concerns about the contagiousness and severity of the H1N1 flu strain have generated a boom in the hand-sanitizer market. Sales of gels and wipes have soared 71% to $118.4 million in the 24 weeks that ended Oct. 3 from $69.4 million in the same period a year earlier, according to Nielsen Co.

Driven in large part by businesses seeking to protect employees and customers, sanitizers helped boost earnings at bleach maker Clorox Co. and were a bright spot in an otherwise difficult period for Johnson & Johnson, whose Purell subsidiary is one of the main producers of alcohol-based gel cleaners.

Demand for anti-virus products also has spawned a cottage industry in personalized sanitizers. Consumers can go online and order them in fur-trimmed pump bottles or in containers printed with their company names. Pier 1 Imports is selling holiday-themed sanitizers with such scents as cinnamon and cilantro, packaged as nicely as perfumes.

One Internet start-up is getting so many orders for its disinfecting products that suppliers can't keep pace.

"Everything you touch has germs," said Carol Lewis, 65, of Los Angeles, who keeps hand sanitizers in her purse, in her car and at home because of concerns about catching H1N1, also called swine flu. "I don't know if it's going to protect me but, psychologically, it helps."

About a third of businesses are taking precautions against H1N1, about the same number that prepared for Avian flu and SARS when those viruses erupted in Asia, according to a recent survey by the consulting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. But unlike those earlier epidemics, the H1N1 pandemic has hit worldwide -- and sanitizers and disinfectants seem to be popping up all over.

Walt Disney Co. said this week that it added more than 60 bulk sanitizer dispensers at its Anaheim and Orlando, Fla., theme parks. The sanitizers are at park entrances, hotel lobbies and areas where visitors meet their favorite Disney characters.

Ventura Transfer Co., a Long Beach trucking and storage company, furnished all employees with hand sanitizers and stocked up on combined respirator-face masks.

"We have an obligation to provide our customers with an assurance that we can maintain functionality, that we will be able to handle their products the way they expect them to be handled," safety manager Jim Cheney said.

Bottles of Purell sanitizer sit on every desk at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where signs pronouncing "clean hands save lives" greet visitors at every turn. The hospital complex has been ordering about 580 gallons of the clear gel a month, nearly twice the amount that it used before the spread of H1N1.

"You can't really turn around here without seeing Purell," said Rekha Murthy, Cedars-Sinai's director of hospital epidemiology.

At the Creative Center for Children, a preschool in Westwood, doorknobs are cleaned with disinfectant wipes every 90 minutes. So are tabletops in common areas.

Crossroads School in Santa Monica is taking similar steps.

"Our facilities department is cleaning twice daily, paying special attention to doorknobs, handles, railings and other surfaces frequently touched by multiple people," said a recent e-mail to parents.

Wall Street analysts such as Nik Modi of UBS are telling investors that H1N1 is giving disinfectant businesses a boost.

"H1N1, that's the name of the game," Modi said.

Last week, Clorox reported a 23% rise in net income, to $157 million, in its fiscal first quarter that ended Sept. 30. Most of it was driven by record sales of Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, said Chief Executive Donald R. Knauss, who added that demand was so high that the Oakland company was diverting part of its manufacturing capability.

Johnson and Johnson, makers of Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer, wouldn't release sales figures, but demand has been so high that the New Brunswick, N.J., company recently put out a statement meant to reassure customers.

"We are committed to working with our suppliers to attempt to increase production," the company said.

Anticipating the wave of demand, Warren Persky started an Internet operation,, in September to sell the disinfectants he makes. He advertised with Google and used its Website Optimizer to help his company show up on searches that use the term "hand sanitizer."

And business is great.

Persky says he has so many orders for his pen-style pocket sprays and half-ounce sanitizing gels that his suppliers can't keep up. His customers include hotels, restaurants, county health departments, home care companies, banks and construction firms.

"We have customers wanting to get their products by the end of the week," said Persky, adding that it takes a minimum of 10 working days for clients to receive their orders. "Our suppliers are running out of products."


Orlando Sentinel staff writer Jason Garcia contributed to this report.

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