Memorial Day/Summer Safety Tips: Keeping kids safe from poisons in the garage

The air is a little less cold; the sun is out a little bit longer. Plans are being made for the spring clean up as we head into Memorial Day and warmer weather.  As parents, this is a great time of year.  Neighborhood kids who have been in a 4 month hibernation come over to play and we marvel at how big they have all gotten over the winter.  Laughter fills the air as the children run around playing baseball, football, soccer and other outdoor games.

As an ER doc and Director of the Illinois Poison Center, I have to point out however, that spring and summer are the times when pediatric unintentional poisoning peaks.  In Illinois, there are over 20% more pediatric poisoning events in the spring and summer then there are in the winter.  And a lot of that is due to access to potentially harmful chemicals that are found in the garage.

Some of these products include:

  • Hydrocarbons:  examples are charcoal lighter fluid, gasoline, kerosene, turpentine and paint thinner, tiki torch oil and other similar products.  Hydrocarbons if aspirated (breathed into the lungs) can cause severe lung damage and death.  It only takes a small amount for tragedy to strike if one is not hyper-vigilant with small children.  This class of chemical is seen almost every year as a cause of pediatric death in the poison control data.
  • Toxic Alcohols:  Ethyl Alcohol, which is found in beer, wine and spirits is usually not found in the garage, however other types of alcohols are, and they include:
    • Methanol:  Commonly found in windshield washer fluid and gasoline additives.  As little as a couple of teaspoons can cause blindness and death in a small toddler.
    • Ethylene Glycol:  Found in radiator antifreeze and has a slightly sweet, pleasant taste and can lead to kidney failure and even death if enough is drunk by the child.
    • Diethylene Glycols and other higher glycols:  Often found in brake fluid in very high concentrations.  These products can also lead to renal failure and rarely death in large ingestions.
  • Caustics:  Caustics are substances that can cause chemical burns like acids and alkali products that may be found in oven cleaners, grill cleaners, and drain cleaner, brick/concrete cleaner, rust removing solutions.  Some of the caustic solutions may contain hydrofluoric acid that can also cause the heart to beat improperly and lead to death.

I am guessing you are thinking “So great, there are a lot of bad things that can happen if the kids drink the chemicals in the garage . . . what do I need to know so that it does not happen to my children?”

1)      Keep products in their original containers: Seems simple, but it happens all the time that the blue windshield wiper fluid gets stored in the Gatorade bottle or the Tiki Torch Oil (which looks similar to apple juice or tea) is put in a Snapple bottle; then someone drinks the toxic chemical thinking it is something else.

2)      Store products where children cannot reach them; use locks on cabinets.  A cabinet raised of the ground is ideal, cabinet locks are a must.  They may not stop a child, but they will slow them down so there is time to stop them from getting into harmful substances.

3)      Close the lid and put away dangerous products immediately after using them.  Here is an example of how it happens.  Set up the grill, soak the briquettes with lighter fluid, put the bottle down on the ground or side table; you turn to grab a drink of refreshment and by the time you turn back around, the 2 year old baby is sucking on the lighter fluid bottle and is now coughing and sputtering.  It takes all of 15 seconds for something like this to happen.  And it happens every year all around the country.

When finished with all dangerous products, close them and put them away immediately.

Over 50% of poison exposures called to the Illinois Poison Center is involve children 5 years old and under.  Poisoning is the #1 cause of injury-related hospitalization and death in kids 18 to 36 months of age.  As we head into Memorial Day, remember to be extra careful with potentially harmful substances when the little ones are around.  Now is a good time to follow the tips above and make your home a safe environment for your family.  An ounce of prevention today will lead to happy and healthy spring and summer seasons for years to come.

Until next Tuesday,


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  1. Illinois Poison Center Blog » Blog Archive » Toxic Pyrotechnics and other Fourth of July Hazards

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