Gang 'raided London hospitals for alcoholic hand gel'

By Ed Davey
BBC News, London

media captionBartek, 30, who was in rehab in his native Poland, lost 1.5 litres of blood in a haemorrhage caused by his habit, Gareth Furby reports.

A street drinker who nearly died from drinking alcoholic hand wash has detailed how his gang systematically raided London hospitals for the fluid.

Bartlomiej, 30, who was in rehab in his native Poland, lost 1.5 litres of blood in a haemorrhage caused by his habit.

Meanwhile, Freedom of Information requests revealed dozens of reports of thefts across seven hospitals.

Since 2012 police have been called, staff attacked and patients, not linked to the gang, have lost consciousness.

Bartlomiej, who did not wish to give his surname, lived in London for more than a year. He said: "We lived in various places, always nearby hospitals.

'A simple life'

"We were squatting, or we just illegally lived in houses or different accommodation.

"Those were the places we were binge drinking. It's a really simple life."

He listed Charing Cross Hospital, King's College Hospital, North Middlesex Hospital, St George's Hospital, Lambeth Hospital and Hammersmith Hospital as among the institutions they targeted.

image captionBartlomiej says two of his fellow hand wash drinkers died from their consumption of the substance. He has now left treatment and is no longer engaging with rehab services

Bartlomiej continued: "You don't have to steal it because it's widely available - we've just been walking in with a plastic cup.

"If it was manual dispenser we just filled a half of a cup of this spirit gel and we mixed it with water, half-and-half.

"You don't need to drink a lot of it to get drunk.

"I've lost a few of my friends, the ones who drank Ace cider and hand wash gel."

The deaths of at least three people in London have been linked by coroners to the consumption of alcohol hand wash since 2008. Two were poisoned while one drowned in a canal in Paddington after visiting St Mary's Hospital.

And a BBC London Freedom of Information request found cases reported at Barts Health NHS Trust, London North West Healthcare NHS Trust, St George's Hospital, Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals, Homerton Hospital, the Royal Free Hospital and Guy's and St Thomas Hospital.

'Remain vigilant'

Guy's and St Thomas saw the most cases, with 29 reports of hand wash theft in the past three years.

A spokeswoman for the hospital said hand wash was vital to maintain hygiene, but staff were told to remain vigilant about people drinking it and to report anything suspicious.

However, incident logs obtained by the BBC made clear the problems caused on London's hospital wards by those swallowing the substance.

• At the Royal Free Hospital a patient was found unconscious in his bed with alcohol gel by the bedside and another container in his bag. Emergency care had to be given.

• At St George's Hospital a patient was found drinking the gel in bed. According to the medical report he was constantly trying to get up, and then tripped and fell. The log described the subsequent action taken as: "Patient put back to bed."

• At the Royal London Hospital a member of staff was assaulted by someone stealing hand gel. Security or police have been called by the trust on four occasions over the issue.

image captionJanice Stevens explained that alcoholic hand wash is vital to combat MRSA

Janice Stevens, interim chief nurse at the Royal London, said: "A nurse was assaulted when a member of the public was trying to take alcohol gel, which they were going to consume.

"Security was immediately called, the person was removed and the nurse was supported following the assault."

She continued: "The alcohol gel is locked and we've removed alcohol gel from the non-clinical areas such as outpatients, which is lower in risk of infection.

"Staff are aware of the importance of keeping an eye on the gel and we are just piloting an alcohol-free gel to see whether that has the same impact on the bugs. It's there to prevent infections such as MRSA."

'Can be fatal'

Dr Sarah Jarvis, a leading GP, warned: "These alcohol gels are not made to be drunk. Therefore they will have all sorts of things added to them which will be very toxic.

"They can cause severe inflammation on the inside of your gut.

"This is going to be a particular problem for alcoholics because they tend to have inflammation on the stomach and they can have swollen veins inside their stomach, so they are much more prone to bleeding."

She continued: "You can also get alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.

image captionDr Sarah Jarvis said there was 'absolutely no question' hand wash could be a killer

"There's absolutely no question that these things can kill and there have been several situations where patients have been killed."

Hospitals across London detailed the extra precautions they were taking, which included installing lockable dispensers. In other cases a foam was used rather than a gel, hand wash was removed from some public areas and non-alcoholic wash or gel with a thicker consistency trialled.

An NHS England spokeswoman said: "In the interests of patient safety, hospitals take a vigilant approach to preventing infection.

"Hospitals have alcohol hand wash to protect patients, the public and NHS staff, and to support high standards of cleanliness.

"We would condemn any gangs or individuals targeting hand gel for their own purposes which could put patients' health wellbeing at risk."

The Metropolitan Police and the Department for Health made no comment.

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