Kids may mistake detergent for candy

Sandy Kleffman / Contra Costa Times /


Published Nov 14, 2012 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

They’re brightly colored, squishy and bite-sized, and may look like candy to young children. And that’s the problem.

Toddlers often can’t resist popping the small detergent packets for dishwashers and washing machines into their mouths and are having serious health problems as a result.

Since March, the California Poison Control System has received 429 calls about children who were exposed to the packets, including 191 who needed to be treated in an emergency room or other health care facility.

Nineteen were hospitalized.

Children who swallow detergent from the packets often have profuse vomiting, wheezing and breathing difficulties and may get very sleepy. Some need to be placed on a ventilator.

Others accidentally squirt liquid detergent into their eyes as they bite into and burst a packet, causing severe eye irritation.

“I’ve been really concerned about this since I first started to see these calls come in in March,” said Dr. Rick Geller, medical director for the California Poison Control System at Children’s Hospital Central California in Madera.

“We haven’t had a kid die yet, but these are far more dangerous products to children than laundry detergent powder,” he said

The liquid in the packets is concentrated, so toddlers often ingest more of it than they do powder, Geller said. He noted that if children try to eat laundry powder, much of it will slip through their fingers before they get a handful to their mouth.

Children who swallow powdered detergent typically have only a mild upset stomach.

The packets, introduced to the U.S. market in 2010, contain liquid detergent, or a mixture of liquid and powder, in a clear membrane that dissolves as it comes into contact with water.

The packets are designed for a single load and are attractive to consumers because they are easy to use — people just pop them into a machine, no measuring required.

“This is definitely something parents need to put on the upper shelves,” said Dr. Bernard Dannenberg, director of pediatric emergency medicine at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

Even that may not be enough for some children who can climb, however, said Ray Ho, a clinical toxicologist for the California Poison Control System in San Francisco. He suggested keeping the packets in a locked area or in a cabinet with child-resistant latches.

Nationwide, 485 exposures to laundry detergent packets were reported to poison control centers from May 17 to June 17 of this year, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted in a report this month. More than 90 percent of the cases involved children 5 or younger.

In early May, a 20-month-old North Carolina child swallowed detergent from a punctured packet and within 10 minutes began vomiting profusely, the CDC said. He had trouble breathing, became unresponsive and had seizures. After he was placed on a ventilator, he improved and was discharged from the hospital 36 hours later.

Geller is so concerned about the problem that he has contacted the Consumer Product Safety Commission and has talked to detergent manufacturers about making their packaging more difficult for children to open, as companies did several years ago with pill bottles.

The American Cleaning Institute, which represents manufacturers, has been in contact with safety officials and is cooperating with the Consumer Product Safety Commission as it looks into the issue, the organization said in a statement.

The industry is intensifying initiatives to educate the public about keeping the packets out of reach and out of sight of children, including warnings on packaging, the institute said.

Poison control

Call a poison control center immediately at 800-222-1222 if your child swallows detergent from a packet or gets it in his or her eyes.