OMG! Uh oh. Geez! Duh. Shoot! Yep, we’ve heard these exclamations time and time again. We all strive to do what’s best for our families by keeping our children safe and our homes clean. However, once in a while, some of the methods we use to achieve these goals totally backfire and can have minor—or even severe—consequences. Here are the top 10 most common toxic mistakes:
- Applying products or chemicals that aren’t meant for the body. One woman called because she had reached into her bathroom cabinet in the dark for a tube of personal lubricant and accidentally grabbed toothpaste instead. Similarly, a recent caller purchased some “all natural” household cleaner and assumed that since all the ingredients were all natural, it would be safe to use to disinfect her hands. However, the product’s ingredients, while natural, were caustic and caused chemical burns.
- Encouraging someone to vomit after eating something that wasn’t meant to be ingested. We never recommend inducing vomiting in any situation. Vomiting is a very traumatic experience. Many things that burn the throat going down get a second chance to burn when they come back up. When you vomit, there is also a chance the “stuff coming up” can get in the lungs and cause further damage.
- Using a kitchen spoon to dispense medication. A parent called the IPC because his elementary school-aged child was drowsy, confused and had slurred speech, and he thought it was from his cough medicine. During the call, it was discovered that while the dosing instructions were to give a teaspoon at a time, the parent had been using a large soup spoon out of the kitchen drawer to dose the medicine. The child had been getting three to four times the 5mL teaspoon dose.
- Storing cleaning products and chemicals in the same location as food, beverages and medicines. While I was visiting my young niece, I saw her apply something to a wound on her knee that smelled a lot like Pine Sol. She said, “It’s what mom uses when we get hurt.” When I looked at the bottle and the cabinet where it was stored, I realized she was, in fact, using a pine cleaner that was put next to another wound disinfectant in a very similar bottle. We have had more than one case of someone accidentally putting super glue in their eye instead of their eye drops because the bottles were a similar shape and size. Waiting for the glue to finally soften enough to pry the eyelid apart is a very unpleasant experience. And don’t forget about the potential need to cut off all the lashes that are stuck together.
- Using “home” remedies. Home remedies can be worse than the initial ingestion (see #2). I remember a case where after a child had ingested something nontoxic, the parents mashed up several cloves of garlic, mixed it with water and fed it to the baby. That child was miserable from the gastrointestinal effects for days. Once we received call from a caregiver who, in a panic and wanting do something to help, gave a small child baking soda mixed with water in hopes of dislodging a small necklace charm the child had swallowed. The child was rushed to the hospital but unfortunately died from complications due to the baking soda “remedy”.
- Mishandling chemicals. We’ve taken several calls recently from people who were getting their pool ready for the summer and wanted to make certain their pool chemicals were “fresh.” They were fresh, all right: One person popped open the lid of pool cleaner and got a good whiff of some very caustic fumes.
- Mixing chemicals or cleaning products. This tends to happen a lot in the bathroom (see link). Another example…One woman mixed two bottles of the exact same pool product together, one from last year and a newer one this year. Unfortunately, when she mixed them, they exploded in her face, and she wound up with corneal (eye) burn.
- Using rat poison inappropriately. Bad things happen when you mix rat poison with food, especially when you have young, crawling children in the house. Some of our most interesting cases come from people putting out poison for rats and trying to make it enticing by combining it with human food—which only makes it more attractive for kids. One caller mixed rat poison and peanut butter to appeal to the rats, only to find their child eating it, thinking it was their afterschool snack.
- Allowing children to handle medications. One mother asked her young child to bring her medication to her, and the child brought mom the wrong one. The medicine she brought was so potent and dangerous that if the child had sampled even one drop, it could have meant a 24-hour stay in a hospital intensive care unit. We all want our children to be independent, but we may overestimate their ability to take medications on their own. Many prescription and over-the-counter medication bottles look similar, and oftentimes, children and even adults take the wrong one unknowingly. It is best to administer your children’s medications yourself and not allow them independence when it comes to something that may be harmful or potentially fatal when not taken correctly.
- Storing medication improperly. I had a call from a mother whose child had pulled apart grandpa’s heart medicine capsules and emptied the contents all over the floor. She had no idea how much, if any, the child had ingested. The medication had been in grandpa’s jacket pocket in a pill-dispenser (with no child-resistant cap/latch). Grandparents, friends, guests, and other visitors often come with medications, many of them with potentially toxic and not in child-resistant containers. Remember, “child-resistant” caps will only delay a child access by only a few seconds, they are not “child-proof”. Store all prescription/over-the-counter medications, supplements, vitamins, etc. up high, out of sight and locked up (if possible).
I can’t help but mention an issue we’ve been dealing with more frequently: exposure to foreign medications and cleaners. As if keeping track of all the thousands of U.S. medications weren’t difficult enough, adding foreign medications to the equation adds several layers of complexity, including figuring out what they are, what the U.S. equivalent is, etc. Once, a toddler got into his grandmother’s medication, and because the grandmother was visiting from Poland and did not speak English, the emergency department called IPC for help to figure out what the pill was. Always be mindful of medications others will be bringing to your home, work and play environments, especially when having visitors from foreign countries.
Moral of the story…when in doubt, STOP, turn on a light and put on your glasses (if necessary) to read the product instructions. If you have questions, call the IPC. It’s a free, confidential call answered in less than 1 minute (usually) by specially trained toxicology experts; a translation line is always available. You can call if you have a question or just need treatment advice for you or someone else. Anyone can call, including the public and healthcare providers. No question or issue is too big or too small, just call 1.800.222.1222 any time, day or night, any day of the year. Click here for a Complimentary Safety Packet with a sticker, magnet and first aid recommendations or here for the IPC’s free online Poison Prevention Education Course and Resources.
Have a safe, relaxing summer…Erin P., PharmD