Poison Patrol: Surprising Household Hazards

Here’s a frightening statistic: In the United States a poison control center receives a call every 13 seconds about a possible poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Considering more than 90 percent of these incidents occur in the home, it’s time we all take inventory of what could pose as a hazard for our children.


“There are many potential poisonous or caustic substances commonly found in U.S. homes,” says Dr. Trevor Davis, who is board certified in both pediatrics and pediatric rheumatology and practices at MVPediatics in Quincy. “Many are items we all know to keep children away from, such as prescription medications, cleaning agents and pesticides. We know these items should always be stored out of children’s reach and in their original containers with the original safety caps and labeling, and we are generally aware safety latches and other equipment should be deployed in any home with young children.”


But Davis points out that despite this knowledge, one million kids under the age of six are reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) each year.


Even if you’ve raked over your own residence with a fine-tooth comb to ensure all poisons are kept away from little hands, take a second to consider parts of the house you assume are less-traveled by your children.


“It’s important to be aware of children’s exposure to places like storage areas of the home, such as the garage, basement or shed,” says Davis. “These locations are less likely to be secured well and more likely to contain numerous dangerous items, such as paints, glues, solvents, kerosene or gasoline.”


He also suggests you be extra mindful when visiting the homes of family or friends, who may not have taken the same precautions as you have in your own abode, particularly if they don’t have children.


Mind the Medicine Cabinet


The CDC reports the most common poisoning culprits among young children are makeup and personal care items, cleaning products and pain relievers. Just because a medication is marked over-the-counter (OTC) doesn’t mean it’s fit for any kind of consumption.


“While prescription medications, including anti-hypertensive medications, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, morphine derivatives, tricyclic anti-depressants and many others, are dangerous, so too are acetaminophen, aspirin and even iron pills,” says Davis. “These are of concern because most people would consider these relatively safe. For a toddler, just 15 adult-size iron pills or 20 aspirin pills could be lethal.”


He explains that acetaminophen has a small “therapeutic window.” While many medications could be increased before anything damaging can happen to the body, acetaminophen isn’t one of them, yet it’s often widely considered to be a safe drug.


“Intermittent dosing of just twice the recommended dose can be toxic and sustained supratherapeutic dosing just 20 percent higher than recommended can cause liver damage,” says Davis. “Therefore all medications, even the OTC medications, should be kept away from young children.”


Another important point is that even those natural supplements sitting on the low shelves aren’t safe in the wrong hands. As an example, Davis says oil of wintergreen, which is a common Chinese herb, contains high levels of salicylates. This means it bears the same dangers as aspirin, only in a concentrated form.


Invisible Dangers


While we generally think of poisons as something one either drinks or eats, breathing in the wrong fumes can be just as harmful. Similarly, considering that the skin is our body’s largest organ, we can also absorb toxins into our body without them ever hitting our mouths.


“Vapors of hydrocarbons can be damaging and pesticides can be absorbed through the skin,” says Davis.


And while not actually invisible, there are plenty of poisons lying around that we may simply overlook because we’ve chalked them up to being safe, like laundry or dish detergents, but in reality they’re just as worrisome as the aforementioned materials.


“We often equate these with soap, but they are, especially in concentrated forms, strongly alkaline and can cause caustic damage,” says Davis. “Both acids and alkaline agents can cause direct tissue damage, but surprisingly it is the alkali agents that are more often responsible for household poisonings and damage. These substances cause tissue necrosis, especially in the esophagus. Thus they should be put with other cleaning agents and locked away from young children.”


Be aware that children under six years old are at risk when exposed to lead. The CDC explains that because they are growing so quickly, and have the tendency to touch everything and then touch their mouths, this age group is most likely to be affected. Lead-based paints were banned in housing in 1978 but the CDC reports that approximately 24 million housing units have this deteriorating paint with increased levels of lead-contaminated house dust.


In the Event of a Poison Incident


If you think your child has ingested something harmful, your gut reaction might be to encourage them to throw up, but that’s not what’s recommended by the medical community.


“The damage they can do to the esophagus is one reason why it is not recommended to induce vomiting in childhood poisonings,” says Davis. “Regurgitating a caustic agent only increases exposure time and thus tissue damage. Potential for aspiration [breathing the substance into the airways] is another reason to caution against this practice. This is especially true with hydrocarbon ingestions, such as gasoline or kerosene. These are more dangerous when regurgitated as they are most damaging in the lungs. Aspiration of these, whether during initial ingestion or from vomiting, can be fatal, while passing them through the GI tract is relatively safe.”


If you bring your child to a hospital you might be surprised to find they rarely induce vomiting with Ipecac or even stomach pumping (gastric lavage). Davis explains these methods are only useful under certain circumstances. Largely he says they will use supportive care and activated charcoal for effective treatment.


If you think your child has ingested a poison, know that symptoms vary depending on what may have been consumed or absorbed. Keep a poison control number displayed in your home (1-800-222-1222) and call in the event of any potentially harmful ingestions or exposures.


Kelly Bryant is associate editor of Boston Parents Paper.

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25 Sep 2015

By Kelly Bryant