DALLAS – Miniature laundry detergent packets arrived on store shelves in recent months, touted as a solution to bulky bottles and messy spills. But doctors across the country say children are confusing the tiny, brightly colored packets with candy and swallowing them.
Nearly 250 cases have been reported this year to poison control centers. Though they remain a tiny fraction of the thousands of poisoning calls received every year, doctors are concerned. The symptoms they see in connection with ingesting the packets – such as nausea and breathing problems – are more severe than typical detergent poisoning.
“We’re not quite sure why it’s happening,” said Dr. Kurt Kleinschmidt, a Dallas toxicologist. “But we’ve clearly had some kids who have become much more ill. We look at these pods as being clearly more dangerous than the standard detergent.”
Both Tide and Purex introduced laundry detergent packets in March. The light plastic packets contain a single-use amount of detergent that dissolves in water. They’re intended to be dropped into a washing machine in place of liquid or powder detergent.
Poison control centers began fielding calls about the packets soon after they were introduced. Texas reported 71 instances of exposure this year, all but one in March or later. Missouri reported 25 cases related to the packets, and Illinois reported 26.
In Seattle, the Washington Poison Center has received 16 calls this year about children putting single-use washing machine packets in their mouths, compared to zero calls last year.
“We’re concerned it’s growing fast, and symptoms people have been experiencing are so exaggerated,” Development Director Terri Suzuki said Thursday. “Profuse vomiting right away, and it can affect their breathing.”
The cases in Washington have been mild and symptoms clear up in 24 hours, Suzuki said.
Doctors said the packets appeared to be more dangerous than just swallowing liquid or powder detergent. Dr. Michael Buehler of the Carolinas Poison Center said there were several possible reasons why, including that the packets carry a full cup’s worth of detergent in bite-size form or the detergent in the packet might activate more quickly or differently.
“The children get sicker, more severe, and they do this quicker than what we’ve seen with standard liquid laundry exposure,” Buehler said.
In suburban Philadelphia, a 17-month-old boy was home with his mother when she “turned her back for the proverbial second,” said Dr. Fred Henretig of the Poison Control Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The boy climbed up on a dresser and popped a detergent package in his mouth, Henretig said.
The boy vomited, became drowsy and started coughing. He was eventually put on a ventilator for a day and hospitalized for a week, Henretig said.
“This brand is a bright blue, pretty colorful product; the little plastic balls are sort of squishy and like playing with a bubble,” he said. “It would obviously be intensively attractive to a young child to pick up and play.”
Paul Fox, a spokesman for Procter & Gamble, the parent company of Tide, said all cleaning products need to be handled carefully. He said Tide was working with poison control centers and advocacy groups to make sure parents know more about the risks.
“The packs themselves are safe, regardless of who manufactures them, provided that they are used for their intended purpose,” Fox said. “The risk becomes when they’re left like any other household product within reach of small, inquisitive hands.”
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