It all started back in the 1940s: After World War II, there was a substantial increase in the number of household products available to consumers, including many items that hadn’t been seen in homes before, such as cleaning products, pesticides, drugs and other chemicals. Many were poorly packaged and contained really toxic ingredients. People had things like lye, arsenic and strychnine (oh my!) just lying around their homes. It may not come as a surprise that accidental poisoning became a huge public health issue, especially among children. In fact, at one point, over half of childhood accidents were due to poisoning and more than one child died from poisoning every day. This problem led to the creation of the first poison center…
and this year, the IPC, which is the oldest poison center in the country, turns 65! The poison center has come a long way in 65 years and we’re proud of all we have accomplished during that time.
The IPC all started with one man: his name was Louis Gdalman. He worked at St Luke’s hospital, which was one of the largest hospitals in Chicago in the 1940s. As a pharmacist with a chemistry degree, he became the go-to guy when these poisoned patients came to the hospital. Physicians would come to him and say, “what is this stuff, what is it going to do to the patient, and what can we do to help them?” Not only would Gdalman provide treatment advice, but he would also document information about each case to create reference materials on index cards that could be used to help future patients. He not only provided his service when he was working at the hospital, but he took calls at his home 24/7. His reputation grew nationwide, and before long, he was getting calls from the general public and physicians far beyond St Luke’s. When a committee led by the American Academy of Pediatrics pushed to formally establish the country’s first poison center in 1953, St Luke’s was the natural choice because Louis Gdalman had been providing a service just like it for so many years. The first poison center proved to be so useful and effective that others started cropping up all over the country.
Luckily for all of us, the safety of household substances has improved greatly in the past 65 years. Most products have been reformulated with safer ingredients, so you’ll no longer find arsenic powder in a cardboard box in the kitchen cabinet. Over the years, safety legislation, including use of child-safety caps, became widespread. That combined with medical advancements like new antidotes and better supportive care has decreased pediatric poisoning deaths to less than 5% of what they were in 1953.
In the last 65 years, the IPC has come a long way from one pharmacist taking calls from his home and keeping notes on handwritten index cards. We are now at the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, and our team has expanded to 26. Our specialists—all healthcare professionals specially trained in toxicology—work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to serve the entire state.
In 2017, the IPC managed 77,000 individual cases. About one-third of these came from clinicians managing patients in Illinois hospitals, and the rest were from the public. In managing these cases, our staff provided over 165,000 total phone consultations last year.
Poison Centers are valuable not only because they offer treatment recommendations after a poisoning has occurred, but also because they provide poison prevention education to stop poisonings from happening in the first place. The IPC is the largest provider of toxicology education in the state. Our poison prevention message reaches hundreds of thousands of people online and in person. We are also committed to preparing the next generation of healthcare providers in medical toxicology: Over 200 medical and pharmacy students and residents spent time working alongside our specialists at the IPC last year.
Even though the number of serious and deadly childhood poisonings is down, the IPC’s work isn’t finished. We continue to be involved in addressing toxicology public health threats: the opioid crisis; the mental health crisis which unfortunately results in many self-harm overdoses and poisonings; and staying one step ahead of the latest drug of abuse. Poisoning is the leading cause of injury-related death in the US.
If this post has made you want to learn more about IPC history, you’re in luck. Tune in next month for a look at some fascinating lessons learned and taught over the past 65 years!