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Toxic Danger for Kids

High risk of ingesting laundry pods

Laundry pods, those colorful-as-candy packets of laundry detergent, are putting a stain on child safety. “In my 20-plus years as a physician and toxicology expert, I have never seen a common household consumer product that has caused this many injuries to small children,” said Michael Wahl, MD, medical director of the Illinois Poison Center. Dr. Wahl cites a study entitled “Laundry and Dishwasher Detergents in the United States” in the April 2016 issue of The Journal of Pediatrics that found a 17% increase in the number of children under age 6 who were exposed to laundry detergent packets (primarily through ingesting them) from 2013 to 2014. More than 100 children who were exposed to laundry detergent packets required intubation, and two children died.

Nationally, poison control centers received 22,064 calls related to laundry packet exposures among children younger than age 6 from January 2013 through December 2014.  During that same time period, the Illinois Poison Center received a total of 1,009 such calls (439 in 2013, and 570 in 2014, an increase of nearly 30% from 2013 to 2014). Last year, the Illinois Poison Center (IPC) and the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital released a detailed analysis of the threat of laundry pods to young children, finding a nearly ten-fold increase in calls to the IPC about children’s exposure to the product from 2012 to 2014.

Unit dose laundry pods first appeared in U.S. market in 2012. Since that time, hospitals and poison control centers have noted an alarming increase in exposure to these products in children. The statistics on laundry pod-related ingestions are alarming by themselves, but a look at characteristics of the pods provides an explanation for this growing hazard, according to the IPC. “In light of a developing child’s curiosity and use of oral exploration, the attractiveness of the pods, easy accessibility, and the chemical nature of concentrated detergents lead to a high risk of pod ingestion and resultant injury.”

According to the IPC report, “the most common symptoms of laundry pod exposure are nausea, vomiting, coughing, choking, drowsiness, and mouth and throat irritation; symptoms can also include difficulty breathing, respiratory burns and even seizures and comas in extreme cases.”

While laundry pods are not marketed to children, a young child is naturally drawn to the small, brightly colored objects. Marketing studies show that children are attracted to bright colors, as are adults. The difference is that infants and toddlers are developmentally primed to place objects of interest in their mouths. Many laundry pods are produced in bright orange, purple and green to garner attention and encourage purchasing. Even brands with plain white or clear pods have bright exterior packaging. In addition, the size and texture of the pods are appealing. Generally, pods are less than two inches wide. They have a solid feel but with a gelatinous interior similar to many baby teething toys and candy products. A young child often has not developed the skill to distinguish those small pods from toys, pacifiers, teething objects and food products.

Alarmingly Easy Access

Many laundry pod manufacturers provide their products in a large zippered bag, a tub with a lift-off lid or twist top. Currently, there are no mandatory guidelines for safe packaging and for many products, there is minimal to no child resistant packaging. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission released a safety alert in 2013 warning caregivers to lock up laundry pods and keep them out of the reach of children because of easy product access.

Eating detergents in general is problematic because of the nature of soaps. There are multiple chemicals in soap that can endanger the body by causing cell and tissue breakdown.

Laundry pods in particular have a higher risk profile due to the chemical composition of the product. A study comparing laundry pods to detergents noted the higher concentration of surfactants and alcohol in pods contribute to more severe injury. The contents of laundry pods can be particularly caustic to the lining of the mouth and gastrointestinal system because they break down the naturally protective barriers of these tissues. Addition of water can increase the pH of the liquid from 7.5 (similar to water) to 11 (similar to household ammonia).

If doctors suspect that a patient has been exposed to a laundry pod or another potentially harmful substance, IPC recommends that they or the patient immediately call the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. For more information, visit the Illinois Poison Center’s website

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