Every 15 seconds, a Poison Control Center somewhere in the United States gets a call. More than half of these calls are from an adult tending to a child who has swallowed a potentially poisonous substance. These substances include medicine, household chemicals and pesticides. In addition, lead-based toxins also pose a serious health threat to children in this country.
According to the Centers For Disease Control, there are approximately 2 million poison exposures in the United States every year - 57 percent among children under the age of six. Tragically, approximately 30 children die every year due to accidental poisonings.
The most common exposures for children are ingestion of household products, such as cleaning substances, medications, cosmetics, personal care products, foreign bodies and plants. The majority of these accidental poisonings - a whopping 90 percent - occur in the home.
It only takes a moment for a small child to find and swallow something poisonous. Many poisonings happen because of minor household distractions - the telephone, the doorbell, something cooking on the stove.
When that happens, says Dr. Muller, there is only one number to call: 1-800-222-1222. This is the new national toll-free number that will automatically route your call to your local Poison Control Center.
"That's the 9-1-1 for poisoning," says Dr. Muller. "The number works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It should be posted near the phone at all times in case of emergency."
When calling a Poison Control Center, Dr. Muller says it is crucial to have the label from the potentially toxic substance in hand.
"We have had parents tell us that their child has ingested aspirin, but when we ask them to read us the label, it turns out to be acetaminophen. One parent told us a child swallowed nail polish remover, but it turned out to be nail tip remover, which is very toxic," she says, explaining, "It's important to have the label in front of you so we know exactly what we're dealing with."
Dr. Muller strongly recommends that emergency instructions on the labels of suspected poisons not be followed. Sometimes, those instructions can by ineffective, and even dangerous. And, just because a label does not have a skull and crossbones or the word "poisonous" on it, don't assume it is safe if ingested.
"Sometimes there are no warnings," she says, stressing it is best to err on the side of caution and call the Poison Control Center. "There are no questions too small for us."
Of course, it is better to prevent a poisoning than to treat the aftermath.
Many of the calls that come into Poison Control Centers concern children who have swallowed over-the-counter pain relievers or prescription medicines. The Poison Prevention Week Council strongly urges adults to use child-resistant packaging for medications - even if there aren't any children in the house. Poisonings have happened when children visit homes, or when people have carried medicines into homes in their pockets or purses.
A study conducted by the American Association of Poison Control Centers found that 23 percent of the oral prescription drugs that were ingested by children under 5 belonged to someone who did not live with the child. Overall, 17 percent of the medicines ingested belonged to a grandparent or great-grandparent. The data suggest that grandparents - and all adults - need to use child-resistant packaging and keep medicines properly secured, away from young children.
"The caps to medicine bottles are child-resistant, not childproof," warns Dr. Muller. "Eventually, a child will figure out how to get it open."
Children under the age of 5 are natural "explorers." Unfortunately, many of the things children see and reach go directly into their mouths. Even young children in the "crawling" stage are at risk. They are at just the right height to find products such as drain cleaners and other toxic household cleaners under sinks or on the floor.
In addition, adults should never leave household chemicals unattended while in use; children act fast and can get hold of a product and swallow it in the time it takes to answer the phone or open the door. Always take the child or the potentially hazardous product with you - never leave them alone together.
Another precaution is to always store products in their original containers, says Dr. Muller.
To a young person, a cup or soda bottle means something to drink. Therefore, you should never use cups or soda bottles to store paint thinner, turpentine, gasoline or other household chemicals.
"There are people who store look-alike poisons in containers," says Dr. Muller. "Anti-freeze looks an awful lot like Gatorade, so storing it in a Gatorade bottle is extremely dangerous. Even one swallow could be fatal to a child." Milk jugs also pose a hazard, as many pesticides have a "milky-white" appearance, she adds. "Storing pesticides in milk jugs is just asking for trouble."
The Poison Prevention Week Council suggests these procedures to prevent poisonings:
And hazardous chemicals don't just come from a bottle. Many household and garden plants, if ingested in large enough quantities, can be toxic.
Plants such as Lily of the Valley, foxglove, oleander and azalea are very toxic, says Dr. Muller, who suggests labeling all houseplants and keeping a close eye on children when outdoors.
In addition to household chemicals, outdoor chemicals such as pesticides pose a danger. A study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency found that almost half of all households with children under the age of five had at least one pesticide stored in an unlocked cabinet within the reach of children. In addition, the study also found that 75 percent of households without children under the age of 5 also stored one pesticide within reach of children. This number is significant because 13 percent of all pesticide poisonings occur in homes other than the child's home.
Adults should take the following steps to safeguard children from exposures to pesticides:
Another threat to young children in this country is lead poisoning, which can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and at very high levels, seizures, coma and even death.
Childhood lead poisoning affects approximately one million children in this country, according to the CDC. Although lead poisoning can affect nearly every system in the body, it often occurs with no obvious symptoms and can go unrecognized for a long period of time.
The major source of lead exposure in the United States is lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust found in older buildings. Although lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978, approximately 24 million housing units in this country have deteriorated leaded paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust. The older a house is, the more likely it is to contain lead-based paint and a higher concentration of lead in the paint.
Young children are at greatest risk for lead poisoning because their growing bodies absorb more lead and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. In addition, young children tend to put their hands in their mouths frequently. Paint chips and lead dust can be easily ingested by toddlers and children.
While the damage caused by lead poisoning can be irreversible, a simple blood test can determine if your child is at risk. The key to preventing lead poisoning is to stop children from coming into contact with lead, and treating children who have elevated blood levels.
If you think your home might be contaminated, there is a simple test kit available for about $8 at Home Depot and other home improvement stores. In addition, state or local health departments can be called to test the paint and dust from your home.
For more information, talk to your pediatrician or call the National Lead Information Clearinghouse toll-free at 800-424-LEAD (800-424-5323). You may also contact Children's Hospital's Lead Clinic at 215-590-3004.
If you are in Philadelphia, you may also call the City of Philadelphia's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP) at 215-685-2797.
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