In fact, every 45 minutes, every day, a poison control center somewhere in the U.S. receives a call about a child who has ingested or otherwise been exposed to a laundry detergent packet, according to Gary Smith, MD, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. In a new Pediatrics study led by Smith, laundry detergent packets emerged as the biggest contributor to hospitalizations and serious medical effects among any other kind of detergent poisoning.
“Concentrated detergent packets may be good for sales but not for children,” Smith said. “Packets often resemble candy or juice, and are the perfect size for a young child to grab and put in their mouth.” Yet the packets differ in chemical composition from non-packet detergents and are more highly concentrated - but easier to ingest quickly. “The water-soluble membrane will quickly begin to dissolve in their mouth, and/or pop when the child bites it, which shoots concentrated detergent down their throat and into their airway,” Smith said.
The increase does not appear to be detergent pod poisonings replacing past non-packet detergent poisonings “but rather an alarming increase due to availability of the packets for laundry and dishwashing soaps,” said Danelle Fisher, MD, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., who was not involved in the study. The colorful, candy-sized detergent pods also arouse more curiosity from children than other types of detergent do, Fisher suggested.
More than a third of all detergent poisonings in the study involved laundry detergent pods. Given the significant harm potentially caused by the detergent packets in this study, Fisher recommends households with small children forgo them altogether until the kids are older.
“Children are smarter than we assume,” Fisher said. “When they see something interesting, they will make every effort to get it. The safest precaution is not to have these packets in the households of small children.”
Smith’s study used the National Poison Data System to analyze all 62,254 poisoning cases involving laundry or dishwasher detergent in children under 6 years old in 2013 and 2014. Poisonings for laundry detergent packets increased 17% over that time, and dishwasher detergent poisonings increased 14%. Dishwasher detergent packets comprised nearly a quarter of all the cases, and laundry detergent packets made up 35% of them. The database’s reports include children who inhaled detergent or whose skin or eyes were exposed, but 85% of all detergent exposures involved ingestion.
More concerning is that effects from laundry detergent pod poisonings in particular are much more serious than poisonings from other forms of laundry or dish detergent. Among 117 kids requiring intubation (using a tube to keep open the airway in the trachea), for example, 104 had been exposed to laundry detergent packets.
“Coma, fluid in the lungs [pulmonary edema], stopped breathing and death were only observed among kids exposed to laundry detergent packets,” Smith said. These effects are statistically rare among all the poisonings - the most common effect was vomiting - but children are far more likely to experience a serious effect if they ingest a laundry detergent pod. The two children who died, the four who had pulmonary edema and the six who stopped breathing had all swallowed laundry detergent pods. Of 21 who went into a coma from any detergent poisoning, 17 had swallowed a laundry detergent packet.
Overall, children exposed to laundry detergent pods had four times greater odds of any clinical effect than if they were exposed to non-pod laundry detergent. The odds were even higher when laundry detergent packets were compared against dishwasher pods or dishwasher non-pod detergent. Further, children’s odds of hospitalization or serious medical outcomes were anywhere from 5 to 24 times greater for laundry pod poisonings compared to any other detergent poisonings.
Smith recommends that parents save the Poison Help Line number 1-800-222-1222 in their phones and post it near home phones in case of any poisoning, and he and Fisher both emphasized the importance of keeping all detergents well out of children’s reach and visibility. But this is not primarily a parenting problem, said Smith, who noted that the Consumers Union has recommended that detergent pods not be used at all - only the second time in its history that it has made such a strong statement, Smith said.
“The best parent in the world cannot watch their children every second. In the time it takes a parent to reach for a pair of socks in the laundry, a child can grab a laundry detergent packet and put it in his mouth,” Smith said. “This is another example of a highly dangerous product being introduced into the places where young children live and play without adequate regard for child safety. Because we have a safer effective alternative to laundry detergent packets, it is unacceptable that children are being rushed to emergency departments in coma, with breathing failure and dying. Child safety should be put first.”
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