The Illinois Poison Center (IPC) receives over 90,000 poison-related calls from the public and health care providers around the state every year. Individually, each call is important to us and to the caller looking for information and advice. Collectively however, the IPC calls become the database for hazardous exposures for the state of Illinois. There is no other database like it in our designated area.
This database and our alert staff serve as the early warning system for potential public health threats through hazard identification, surveillance and situational awareness. This database works within the state and is also combined with national poison center data to provide a national picture of emerging trends. Illinois Poison Center data is uploaded to a central server where it is combined with the call data from 60 other centers to create the National Poison Database System (NPDS).
A few examples of how this hazard surveillance system has worked to prevent illness in Illinois are:
- Puffer Fish Recall: In May, 2007 the Illinois Poison Center received a call regarding a patient with symptoms consistent with puffer fish ingestion. The patient also stated puffer fish was available for purchase at a market in the area she lived. If you didn’t know puffer fish have a very dangerous toxin in their bodies that serve as a defense mechanism and if eaten, can be very deadly. The IPC alerted local public health authorities and multi-agency investigation took place. Initial findings were that fish were being imported from China in boxes labeled as monkfish, but with internal plastic packaging labeling the fish as puffer fish in a non-English language. Very quickly, there was an FDA alert and an eventual recall of several hundred boxes of suspected puffer fish. An academic journal article chronicling the multi-agency investigation involving the CDC, FDA, state and local health departments was published in 2009 (with cool pictures of the fish of the involved fish – yuck). It is the opinion of the various authors that the alert and eventual recall prevented illness and lives across the US.
- K2 – synthetic marijuana: In March, 2010, the Missouri Poison Center sent out alerts on synthetic marijuana products after receiving a large influx of calls on this new legal drug which was available in head shops, tobacco shops and on the internet. The patients were anxious, agitated, some even had hallucinations and/or seizures. This new, emerging public health threat spread quickly with poison centers around the nation reporting calls from emergency department personnel seeking information and treatment advice for the patients in their care. The burgeoning clinical data amassed by poison centers provided the impetus for a temporary DEA ban on such products. In addition to the DEA ban, many states including Illinois (as of 1/1/11) have made the product illegal to sell or possess.
- Bath Salts – ‘The poor man’s meth’ or ecstasy : In December, 2010, the Louisiana Poison Center provided alerts on another drug available through legal channels which is marketed at bath salts under ‘groovy’ names like Ivory Wave, Ocean, Red Dove, Cloud 9, White Dove and energetic names like Charge +, White Lightning, Scarface, and Hurricane Charlie,. The active ingredients have similar effects to the powerful stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines, but with worse effects. Patients exhibited anxiety, agitation, fast heart rates, high blood pressure, but many also had severe paranoid effects; some even injured themselves or committed suicide after taking the drug. Louisiana has since banned the compounds that make up ‘bath salts’ and other such products and many other states are beginning the process of decreasing ready access to this novel drug of abuse with similar bans.
These are just a few examples (Click here to read one of our IPC call center expert’s personal account of the Tylenol Cyanide poisoning scare of 1982) of the power of surveillance through poison center data and the calls they receive. Poison centers are the main source of toxicology information for the general public and healthcare providers. With this function, they also serve as the regional repository of trends of potentially hazardous substances and are the uniquely situated to provide sentinel alerts on new, emerging public health threats.
There is tremendous value in this service; it safeguards the public health of the regions and communities of Illinois.
Be sure to also visit IPC’s new website – www.illinoispoisoncenter.org for great information and resources about posion prevention.