I was preparing dinner while my then-2-year-old granddaughter, who I was babysitting, jabbered to me as she pulled magnetic letters off the refrigerator door. With dinner well under way, I left the kitchen and sat down at the dining table to sort through mail.
Next thing I knew, Lilly had a bright blue, squishy packet of liquid dishwasher detergent in her hand. Her hand was moving toward her mouth. I grabbed the packet and retrieved the hinged, plastic box the packets came in. I had stored it where most people do: under the sink. No harm was done, thank goodness.
That was a year ago. Since then, multiple manufacturers have begun marketing dissolvable packets, or pods, of liquid laundry soap. They are colorful and shiny, some looking almost like candy to an inquisitive toddler. They're convenient, though more expensive, because nothing has to be measured. Just pop one in the washer.
But the trade-off for convenience is danger to kids.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31 of this year, 4,595 children age 5 and under ingested, tried to ingest or were exposed in some other way to the eye-catching laundry detergent pods. These were exposures that led to a call or a report to a poison control center.
Since March, the Indiana Poison Control Center, based at IU Health's Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis and one of 57 such centers in the nation, has received 107 calls related to laundry detergent pod poisoning or exposure, says Dr. James Mowry, director of the center.
“There haven't been any deaths, but we've seen several cases where children have gotten very drowsy, and a couple of children had to have a breathing tube put in,” Mowry says.
The membrane surrounding the concentrated soap dissolves as soon as it becomes wet.
“When it goes into the mouth, it dissolves almost immediately,” Mowry says, and the child gets a highly concentrated dose of the soap rapidly into the body.
Nausea and vomiting are common side effects, along with a change in mental status, drowsiness, breathing difficulties and choking. The liquid is also an eye irritant. Symptoms seem to vary from child to child, and no one is quite sure at this point what specific chemical in the pods is causing certain symptoms or if it is the combination of certain chemicals.
Manufacturers are not required to list all ingredients if some are considered minute quantities or are thought to be inert, meaning they do not react with other substances.
“Whether the effects are due to the concentration or to something like that is unclear,” Mowry says.
It is likely the incidence of laundry pod poisoning or exposure is even higher than the nearly 4,600 calls fielded nationally so far this year. Hospitals and clinics are not mandated to report accidental poisoning incidents to poison control centers.
In a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control in October, researchers looked at incidents involving laundry detergent poisoning exposure for a 30-day period between mid-May and mid-June of this year. Poison control centers received 1,008 calls, with 485 of them involving detergent pods.
Of those, 94 percent involved children age 5 and under. The children who were exposed to the pod form of laundry detergent had significantly more gastrointestinal and respiratory problems as well as mental status changes compared to youngsters exposed to the non-pod laundry products.
The CDC report points out that injury surveillance data from 1990 to 2006 show emergency department visits related to exposures to household cleaners dropped by 46 percent in that period.
That is good news that parents, babysitters — and grandparents — are being more vigilant about keeping such products out of the reach of children. Improved packaging of products is also making them more child-resistant.
Because of growing concerns related to laundry pod poisoning, Proctor and Gamble, maker of Tide Pods, has now put a double lock mechanism on the pod container.
But Mowry says these products “need to be stored in locked cabinets. Any child-resistant product is just that — resistant.”
A busy, inquisitive and determined child can too often find a way around the so-called resistance.