Sixty years ago, on February 7, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed Proclamation 3449 declaring the observation of the very first National Poison Prevention Week (NPPW) beginning on March 18th that year. Legislation passed by Congress in 1961 called on the President to designate the third week of March as NPPW. The objective was to encourage Americans to learn more about the dangers of unintentional poisonings and to take appropriate preventive measures.
In his proclamation, President Kennedy’s said, “I direct the appropriate agencies of the Federal Government, and I invite State and local governments and organizations interested in child safety, to participate actively in programs intended to promote better protection against accidental poisonings.” For 60 years, the Illinois Poison Center (IPC) has taken these words to heart and has promoted NPPW every year since its inception. Click here for more information about free NPPW (and IL Poison Prevention Month) resources, online education and Continuing Education Credit. IPC is dedicated to reducing harm due to poisoning during NPPW and throughout the year.
Even though statistics on incidents of childhood poisonings are sparse, it’s estimated that 400 or more children died from accidental poisonings each year in the mid-1900s. In 2019, over 1 million poisonings in children 12 years and younger were reported to the National Poison Data System (NPDS), with only 26 resulting in patient death. This dramatic drop in the rate of fatalities can be attributed to national legislative action, advances in pediatric critical care medicine, and the establishment of poison control centers throughout the US. A few of these important milestones in the history of poison prevention and safety are described below.
Regulations requiring improved product labeling and child-resistant/tamper-proof packaging:
In the 1960s, two major pieces of legislation mandated adequate warnings on chemical products and hazardous toys. As a result of these regulations, you can be reasonably reassured that products are adequately labeled to ensure the safety of the consumers who purchase and use them.
A major milestone in the poison prevention movement occurred in 1970 with the passage of the Poison Prevention Packaging Act (PPPA), which required the use of those darn safety caps which even you as an adult have difficulty opening on occasions. However, they do really work in slowing kids down from getting into potentially hazardous drugs and chemicals.
Legislation passed in 1983 and 1989 outlawed tampering with packaged consumer products and established guidelines for drug manufactures to make product containers tamper-proof. Both were enacted due to the very scary cyanide-laced Tylenol® deaths and other copycat product tampering cases in the early 1980s.
Changes to the packaging and labeling of laundry pods and vaping liquids containing nicotine are more recent examples of legislative action. In an effort to protect children from accidental exposures, manufactures are required to make the packaging of laundry detergent pods less attractive to children and label potential hazards if an exposure occurs. Regulations by the FDA and Congress on the manufacturing and packaging of e-cigarette liquids and devices are also intended to protect children from accidental exposures.
Reduction of the incidence of pediatric lead poisoning:
In the 1950s, lead poisoning in children was a growing public health dilemma. Sources of lead in the environment included house paints, art supplies, paints, colorants in children’s toys, the gasoline additive tetraethyllead, leaching from old water pipes, and use in canned foods, etc.
In 1988 The Lead Contamination Control Act was passed, which provides grants to state programs to screen children and provide education about lead poisoning. A legislative history of lead-based paint lists several laws that resulted in a reduction of lead in the household.
Leaded gasoline reached its highest use in 1973, accounting for approximately 200,000 tons of lead used per year in the U.S. Legislation in 1973 and 1996 addressed environmental contamination of tetraethyllead.
The dramatic decline in the average blood lead levels in children from 1971-2008 resulted because of these legislative endeavors. (click here to see graph).
Restriction of highly toxic pesticides:
In the 1930s-1940s homeowners and apartment dwellers could easily purchase highly toxic insect killers and rat poisons such as cyanide, strychnine, arsenic, and white or yellow phosphorous. Careless placement of these pesticides in the home led to a number of tragic and potentially lethal poisonings in small children. Over the years, sales to the general public of these highly potentially lethal products have been banned or restricted.
In 1947, The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) was established by the EPA. This federal statute governs the registration, distribution, sale, and use of pesticides in the US. FIFRA was updated in 1972, 1996, 2007 and 2012 and mandates that all pesticides have a label that clearly includes information about the name of the product, net contents, ingredients, warnings, and directions for use. Additionally, residential-use pesticides must have a warning or the word “danger” on the packaging, and the packaging itself must be child-resistant so that most children under 5 years old cannot access or would be impeded from accessing the pesticide.
Smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide detection:
Carbon monoxide (CO) detectors were invented in 1925, yet widespread manufacture, sale, and use did not occur until the late 1990s. In 2007 Illinois required homeowners, landlords, and building owners to install CO detectors in residential properties.
To induce vomiting or not to induce vomiting?
Historically, there has been a huge shift in thinking on vomiting to treat a poisoned patient. Very old and antiquated medical references would recommend induction of vomiting using potentially dangerous methods (e.g. administration of salt water, mustard water, copper sulfate solution, hand dishwashing liquid, and using a finger or other blunt object to forcefully gag a patient.) Syrup of ipecac (SOI), a medicine used to induce vomiting after ingestion of a potentially toxic substance, was first made available for home use in 1965. Touted as an important component of the home first aid kit, SOI was enthusiastically promoted by poison centers, pharmacists, and pediatricians. Due to lack of clear efficacy and safety, however, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a position statement in 2003 that advocated the discontinuation of home use of SOI. The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology (AACT) soon followed suit. SOI is no longer manufactured or sold in the U.S. but can still be found in old first aid kits, medical supply cabinets, etc. Correspondingly, the use of gastric lavage (the proverbial “stomach pumped”) has also dramatically declined due to lack of evidence of benefit and potential for adverse effects.
Poison prevention symbols:
Over the years, various symbols and artwork used on stickers, magnets, and other educational literature have brought visual attention to the importance of poison prevention in the home. Examples include the familiar “Mr. Yuk®”, “Officer Ugg”, “no siop” (which is “poison” spelled backwards), and the more recognized skull and crossbones. But, don’t count on these artistic items to keep a child away from hazardous substances, as some children may be unexpectantly attracted to them.
Prior to 2002, each poison control center in the U.S. and its territories listed its own unique toll free emergency telephone number. As of January 30, 2002, all 55 certified poison controls in the U.S. are reachable by one national hotline number: 1-800-222-1222. This number can be widely distributed and found on product labeling, literature, and websites in case of accidental poisoning.
Despite all the whirlwind of activities over the last 60 years, the need for fully funded poison centers is no less important today than it was decades ago. Why? Poison control centers received the same calls today as they did since the inception of the nation’s first poison center in Chicago in 1953. Some examples of reoccurring calls that keep us busy include:
- My kid got into my purse and ate my medication.
- My 2 year-old put a chair to the counter and ate chewable multivitamins with iron.
- My toddler got under the bathroom sink and drank some toilet bowl cleaner.
So you see, our work is never done and you can bet we will receive the same calls tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year, etc. As a result, we created the “My Child Ate…” online resource to provide quick, expert information and treatment recommendations regarding the most common substances involved in a child poisoning (poop, Cannabis edibles, vaping products, toothpaste, glow sticks, etc.).
In closing, our best advice to you is to do what JFK and every president in office thereafter has declared: Take action now to prevent childhood poisoning. Use our poison prevention guides and poison-proof your home today. Here is a link to request a complimentary safety packet that includes a sticker, a magnet and poisoning first aid tips. Click here for information re: free online Poison Prevention Education Course. We are here to serve you. Hope you enjoyed your mini lesson in the history of childhood poisoning prevention.