Listerine: cheap, accessible and dangerous

In the last four months, Judy Lightening has picked up more than 200 empty Listerine bottles scattered around the Salvation Army shelter. “When it comes back through people’s pores, it really stinks,” said the shelter co-ordinator.

In the last four months, Judy Lightening has picked up more than 200 empty Listerine bottles scattered around the Salvation Army shelter.
“When it comes back through people’s pores, it really stinks,” said the shelter co-ordinator.
“It doesn’t smell like mouthwash, that’s for sure.”

Shoppers Drug Mart, at the Qwanlin Mall, keeps its Listerine behind the counter.
“We had to put it out of sight,” said pharmacist Joanne Gibson. “Because people would come in and point to it and, when they’re aggressive, it was difficult to refuse sale.”

But at the Great Canadian Superstore, big bottles of Listerine regularly sit on display.

Someone attempts to steal a bottle at least once a day, said a former Superstore employee.
“They come in first thing in the morning, as soon as we open.”
“We sell a lot of it,” said another staffer, who referred all inquiries to media relations in Toronto.

On Tuesday, Superstore was sold out of both original Listerine, $5.79, and its generic equivalent, $3.49. With a coupon, the one-litre generic mouthwash was only $2.99.
“Original Listerine seems to be the most popular,” said Gibson.
“That’s the only one we keep behind the counter.”

Locking up Listerine would be worth exploring, said Yukon chief medical officer of health Brendan Hanley.
“I don’t see the downside to doing that,” he said.

Original Listerine contains 26.9 per cent alcohol, while the flavoured varieties contain 21.6 per cent.
“And it’s undiluted,” said Gibson.

Hanley compared it to a fortified wine.

But alcohol intake is only one of the dangers of drinking the colourful mouthwash.
“There’s a lot of bad-sounding stuff in there,” said Hanley, mentioning methyl salicylate.

Drinking methyl salicylate has the same effect as chronic aspirin ingestion, he said.

A single teaspoon of methyl salicylate contains seven grams of salicylate – equivalent to more than 23 300-miligram aspirin tablets.
“And there are antiseptic-like compounds in there that are harmful to the kidneys and liver,” said Hanley.

It’s not uncommon to have seizures after bingeing on Listerine, said Yukon Medical Association president Rao Tadepalli.

And if someone passes out and vomits, “that leads to aspiration, then pneumonia – and they can die.”

From an emergency-room perspective, Listerine is “a significant problem,” said Tadepalli.
“And it is a huge health hazard.”

Trouble is, there have been no studies on the effects of drinking Listerine.
“There’s no information out there on that,” said alcohol and drug services acting manager Jocyline Gauthier.
“I just don’t think the research has been done.”

On the bottle, it says, “In case of accidental ingestion contact a poison control centre or doctor immediately.”

At detox, someone who comes in with Listerine on their breath is treated for alcohol withdrawal, said Gauthier.
“We’ve called poison control because there’s a lot of stuff in Listerine that you’re not actually supposed to be ingesting,” she added.
“But they had absolutely no information.”

It’s obviously much worse than wine, said Tadepalli, also mentioning methyl salicylate.

Methyl salicylate is toxic, especially when taken internally.

The lowest published lethal dose is 101 milligrams per kilogram body weight in adult humans, according to the Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory at Oxford University.

It has proven fatal to small children in doses as small as four millilitres. And a 17-year-old cross-country runner at Notre Dame Academy on Staten Island died on April 3, 2007, after her body absorbed high levels of methyl salicylate through excessive use of topical muscle-pain products, according to the New York Times.

Lightening sees the effects of Listerine overdoses on a regular basis.

It’s a different drunk, she said.
“With alcohol, it’s more gradual.
“But with Listerine, they could seem fine and could be walking down the street, or getting a meal and suddenly they’re in a blackout.
“I can usually tell by their eyes if they’ve been drinking Listerine.”

Lightening’s regulars usually mix their mouthwash with water or juice.
“But some slug it right back out of the bottle,” she said.

One of the side effects is uncontrollable diarrhea.
“They lose control of their bowels and crap themselves,” said Lightening.

She’s had clients poop the bed, and has spent many hours cleaning up after them in the shelter’s washroom.
“Every day, in the hospital emergency room, patients are brought in because of either Listerine or alcohol,” said Tadepalli. “And a lot of health-care resources are lost.
“Do we have individuals that use the ambulance 150 per cent?” he said. 
“Is it taking medical personnel away from potentially another life-saving event?
“Is this a daily occurrence?

Some emergency-room regulars use the hospital to get a free ride home, said Tadepalli.
“It’s sometimes easier for them to come to the hospital – you don’t want to send an intoxicated person walking away – most of them use it for that reason,” he said.
“Or they just lie down on the road, and the ambulance will come and get them, then they come here and that’s their way of getting a taxi, to get home.
“It’s a huge social problem.”

Lightening’s also collected more than 50 artificial vanilla extract bottles from the shelter’s periphery in the last few months.

Many were large 750 millilitre No Name bottles.

But locking up Listerine and artificial vanilla extract isn’t the solution, she said.
“They’d just find something else to drink, like Lysol or hairspray.”

Whitehorse needs supported housing, said Lightening.

Someone living on the street, sleeping in the cold, is going to have a tough time kicking their habits.
“People say there are lots of supports, but there aren’t,” said Lightening.

Clients go to the 28-day program at alcohol and drug services, but when they get out, they have nowhere to go.
“They’ve already run out their string of places by not paying rent, or trashing the place when they were drinking,” she said.
“So they end up back on the streets.”

People get detoxed at the hospital, but that’s just a “temporary stop-gap measure,” added Tadepalli.
“And with the cold temperatures coming, they’ll go and walk and fall somewhere and die.
“Then everybody will make a huge hue and cry – that’s about it.”

But how do you effect real social change? he said.

The issues stem from years of neglect, said Tadepalli.
“First it has to be recognized as a problem, and once the recognition is there, instead of pointing fingers – what is the plan?
“It’s a huge community problem, and a huge social project.
“And it requires various government agencies, community groups and First Nation groups to work together.”

Day after day, Lightening watches her clients slowly killing themselves.
“When you see them at the end stages of alcoholism and you can’t stop them, and you know they’re going to die, you always hope something will change their life around,” she said.

Contact Genesee Keevil at