The IPC is consulted on over 80,000 poisoning cases each year—about 30,000 of those cases involve a nondrug household-use product. That is over 80 each day! Household-use products include cleaners, hydrocarbons, pesticides, automotive products, and personal care products like soaps and lotions. Luckily, most unintentional exposures to these substances results in minor or no toxicity at all. In fact, the majority can be managed at home or wherever the exposure occurred, with help from our expert staff.
Household products today are very safe when used properly, and most of them are actually pretty safe even when a little bit is unintentionally used improperly (like ingested or splashed into the eyes). That was not always the case however! Back in the day, most homes were teeming with seriously scary poisons, which were used for everyday purposes. In fact, the IPC (the first poison center in the country) was started back in 1953 in response to all the injury and death due to household poisonings.
Below are some examples of super toxic substances that we luckily don’t see too much anymore. I don’t say never see anymore, because these substances are still in existence. Every once in a while, we get called on an exposure that occurred because someone brought the product in from another country where it is still used, or it was found in the shed or basement of an old house.
This chemical used to be found in a variety of products including fire extinguishers, degreasers, refrigerants and spot removers. It is extremely toxic to the liver and kidneys, and about a teaspoon could be fatal in an adult. It was banned for consumer-use products in the 70s, and now only has limited industrial uses. The IPC has had a couple of recent cases involving ‘fire grenades’. They were glass globes containing carbon tetrachloride that were meant to be thrown at the base of a fire. The glass would break and the carbon tetrachloride would extinguish the flames. Our recent cases occurred because someone would be cleaning out an old home’s basement where they came upon this curious item and inadvertently dropped and broke it. Because carbon tetrachloride is absorbed via inhalation, breaking one of these suckers in an enclosed space is really dangerous and would require professional hazmat clean up. If you find one in an old home—stay away and call us ASAP!
Most people have heard of strychnine, even though they may not be aware of just how deadly it is. As late as 1982, strychnine was found in over 170 commercial products, mostly rodenticides. Currently it is only used in research and in very restricted pesticides; however every few years we get an exposure after strychnine pesticide was found in an old barn. Strychnine causes painful, severe muscle contractions due to its effect on the spinal cord. These symptoms are sometimes referred to as ‘seizures’ but strychnine does not affect the brain, so the unfortunate patient is fully awake and conscious (until respiratory paralysis kicks in anyway). See pic below (the muscle contractions from strychnine poisoning resemble those from tetanus; they affect the same neurotransmitter). The effects kick in within an hour and there is no antidote. Between 1926-1928, strychnine killed 3 people in the US every week; in 1932, it was the most common cause of fatal poisoning in children. Another important note is that the strychnine alkaloid is found in the plant Strychnos nux-vomica, which is native to tropical Asia and North Australia. For all you organic, non-GMO folks, this one is 100% “all natural”!
Sodium monofluoroacetate (AKA Compound 1080)
Here is another scary pesticide of natural origin (occurs in plants native to Brazil, Australia and Africa). It halts energy production in all cells in the body. It has no antidote and as little as 1/5 of a teaspoon can be toxic. It was banned in the US in 1972 except for extremely limited agricultural use; however, it is still used extensively in other countries. The IPC was consulted on a fatal case last year regarding a person who brought it from another country. Sodium monofluoroacetate is normally colorless but is often dyed a purple-black so when mixed with water it looks like grape juice. The IPC was consulted on another case a few years ago where this purple mixture was stored in a sports drink bottle. Thankfully that patient did well, but let this be another reminder to always keep non-food items in their original containers!
Vacor was a rodenticide that was marketed for a brief time between 1975-1979. It was originally thought to be safe for humans, but was pulled off the market in 1979 by the manufacturer. This poison works in a unique way—it destroys the pancreas cells that are responsible for producing insulin. It essentially causes a permanent, chemically-induced diabetes which happens hours to days after the ingestion. Patients who survived serious Vacor poisoning required insulin injections for the rest of their lives.
Benzene is a hydrocarbon that is actually still used industrially in large amounts in the US. It is an intermediate of many other chemicals such as polymers, plastics and adhesives. Thankfully, you will no longer find pure benzene in homes. It used to be used as a paint stripper, spot remover, aftershave lotion (gross), and degreaser. Until the late 1970s, it was available in quart-size containers at retail stores for general household use. It was removed from commercially available products because it is known to cause cancer, especially blood cancers such as leukemia.
We’ve all heard of arsenic’s poison potential from watching crime documentary shows or reading murder mystery novels. Aside from its unsavory history as a homicide weapon, arsenic was available as a household rodenticide until the 1980s. Further back, in the late 1800s, arsenic was used in green pigments (Paris Green) for things such as wallpaper, fabric and toys. Arsenic has a variety of toxic effects on the cells throughout the body, including interrupting cell energy production and directly damaging DNA. Symptoms of acute poisoning include excruciating GI symptoms (abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea), heart arrhythmias, weakness/numbness/pain in the extremities, seizures, coma, kidney failure and death.
Hopefully you will never come across one of these super toxic substances in your own home. And although many household substances in use today are safe, there are still some that are pretty scary, and I bet you have at least one of them in your home now. So always keep the IPC number (1-800-222-1222) in your phone to call us if needed!
Carol and Tony