(Reuters Health) - U.S. poison control centers received more than 17,000 calls - or about one per hour - about children who'd been exposed to chemicals in laundry detergent pods in 2012 and 2013, a new study found.
Over 700 of the children were hospitalized, and one child died, researchers said.
“This caught us by surprise,” said Dr. Gary Smith, the study’s lead author from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
“I’ve seen these cases come through the hospital’s emergency department,” he said. “I was aware of the case reports, but I haven’t seen anyone pull together the numbers.”
Laundry detergent pods were introduced to the U.S. market in 2012. The all-in-one packets contain detergent that’s released in the wash, so users don't have to measure detergent in a cup.
Smith and his colleagues write in the journal Pediatrics that doctors have previously reported on kids who've eaten or burst the pods with serious consequences, such as being hospitalized and put on a ventilator for several days.
To get a better understanding of how many children are being exposed and possibly harmed by the pods, the researchers analyzed data from 2012 and 2013 from the National Poison Data System, which catalogs calls made to U.S. poison control centers.
Overall, the centers received 17,230 calls about children younger than six who were somehow exposed to the liquid in laundry detergent pods. That’s roughly four calls per 10,000 children in that age group, according to the researchers.
About a third of the calls involved children between the ages of one and two years.
“This is an age group that has newfound mobility,” Smith said. “They’re curious and they don’t sense danger.” Children may think the colorful pods are candy or filled with juice, he said.
About 80 percent of all calls involved children swallowing the pods or their liquids.
“The good news is that half of these exposures were trivial,” Smith said, meaning the children did not get seriously sick or need additional care. “If they swallow it and they swallow enough of it, that’s when we get these serious symptoms,” he said.
The most common side effects of exposure to the pods or their liquids include vomiting, coughing and choking, eye irritation or pain and tiredness. Serious side effects included comas, seizures and stomach burns.
While the researchers can’t say for sure that the detergents in the pods are more powerful than traditional laundry detergent, the symptoms after exposure to the pods seem more serious, Smith said.
“These are severe symptoms that we haven’t seen in the past with traditional laundry detergent that we’re now seeing with these new pods,” he said.
“The symptoms are a very broad spectrum,” Smith said. “It’s not only the amount, but the route of exposure too.”
Dr. Michael Gray of the Abrahamson Pediatric Eye Institute at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio recently wrote about 10 cases of laundry detergent pod exposures.
Speaking of the research by Smith's group, Gray said, “They saw well over 100 corneal abrasions. . . . Certainly this is a nationwide problem.”
“A corneal abrasion is basically a scratch on the cornea,” said Gray, who wasn't involved in the new study. In the cases he wrote about in the Journal of the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, Gray believes the chemicals caused the scratches.
Smith said parents need to recognize the toxicity of these laundry detergent pods. They also need to close the packages and put them away in a locked cabinet.
“We’re actually recommending if parents have young children in the home, they should use traditional laundry detergent,” he said.
Gray said the pods need to be treated like any other chemical. “They need to be kept out of reach and they need to be locked up,” he said.
Smith said industry is moving in the right direction by crafting new and more child-resistant packaging.
In 2012, for example, Tide said it would add a safety latch to its detergent pods, after a child was hospitalized for swallowing the contents. (See Reuters story of May 25, 2012, here: reut.rs/1sua9AJ.)
Smith doesn’t think any current packaging is truly child resistant, however.
“These are continuing examples of a systemic problem we have in this country,” he said. “It’s that our products are designed by adults for the use and convenience of adults.”