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The Explosive Legacy of the Pandemic Hand Sanitizer Boom


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THE COMMOTION STARTED sometime after they lost track of which month the pandemic was in. Leo Guzman and his 24-year-old daughter, Anita, could hear trucks beeping and people working at all hours of the evening in the unmarked warehouses next door to their mobile home in Carson, a suburb 15 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. Thousands of boxes wrapped in plastic were haphazardly pushed to the edges of the lot and stacked in piles as high as 20 feet, one of them leaning like a cardboard interpretation of the Tower of Pisa. Caution tape was strewn around some of the boxes, a blue tarp partly covered others. From where they live, Leo and Anita watched the boxes ascend for many months as the piles became part of their Covid surreality. 

At around 2 pm on September 30, 2021, Anita heard a large boom and felt their home shake, like in an earthquake. After a second boom—the sound of an explosion—Leo checked outside. The boxes were on fire. 

“Luckily, the wind was blowing that way,” Anita told me last spring from inside her residence, pointing away from the park and its 81 homes. Leo has lived here since before Anita was born and keeps an enviable plant collection around his porch. He remembers ashes falling onto his palm tree. 


The fire was the size of a city block. It took 17 hours and 200 firefighters to put out; five were injured. The boxes turned out to contain thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer, distributed by a beauty business called ArtNaturals. When firefighters finally cleared the scene, massive amounts of the liquid remained. It slowly washed down a nearby storm drain.:snip:

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