That could make the I-10 blaze complicating LA traffic this week the third fire in the area involving leftover hand sanitizer. A different pallet yard storing sanitizer erupted in flames in downtown Los Angeles in January. And in 2021, a notoriously noxious smell plaguing the LA County town of Carson was linked by officials to a massive fire at a lot storing thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer.
As WIRED reported in June, the US Food and Drug Administration lifted regulations on hand sanitizer during the height of the Covid-19 crisis, putting faith in the free market to solve a hand sanitizer shortage. It soon became clear that faith was misplaced.
After production jumped, the US quickly had more hand sanitizer than anyone knew what to do with, and much of it turned out to be toxic because of poor manufacturing practices. Over the past few years, unsellable hand sanitizer has been accumulating at sites across the nation. And industrial fires involving large amounts of hand sanitizer have been reported at multiple sites in Texas, Oklahoma, and Illinois.
Hand sanitizer is highly flammable and regulations say it should be treated as hazardous waste. But some in the chemical distribution industry had complained that properly disposing of hand sanitizer was too expensive. One Oklahoma fire was also investigated as arson.
Serafin says that he was not a major distributor of hand sanitizer, just someone trying to support his family during the pandemic selling products such as masks, cleaning fluid, and sanitizer to local businesses. He said his landlord Apex Development had charged him $4,500 a month during the time it was allegedly holding out on rent payments to the California Department of Transportation.
Serafin said he and other sublessees stopped paying rent to Apex when they learned of their landlord’s litigation with the state but resumed paying after its CEO, Nowaid, became aggressive and locked them out of the property.
“At the end of the day, my business is screwed, my livelihood is gone, and all I can do is work,” Serafin said of his current situation. He said he had been renting there since 2009 and that the Department of Transportation was aware of the crowded conditions under the freeway. In addition to the hand sanitizer, Serafin said that there were also forklifts, cardboard, gas canisters, and trucks under the overpass. Apex’s contract with Caltrans stated that flammable or hazardous materials were not supposed to be stored there. Serafin says he’s confident his sanitizer did not start the fire.
“My hand sanitizers did not start it. I could tell you where it was. It was literally in the middle of my shop,” he said, referring to the space he rented under the overpass. “How would it get started right there? It wouldn’t.”