Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Laundry pods: A toxic convenience

It happened so fast. Angela Farrell was doing the family laundry, using small packets of detergent - an innovation introduced in early 2012.


It happened so fast.

Angela Farrell was doing the family laundry, using small packets of detergent - an innovation introduced in early 2012.

The Levittown mother, 24, always handled them carefully, but on that day in March, she didn't notice she had dropped one.

Her 18-month-old son, Landon, did. He grabbed the packet and stuffed it in his mouth. Turning, she saw what was happening, but before she could even reach for it, he had swallowed the packet.

Call 911. Ambulance. Hospital. Landon was vomiting profusely, was having trouble breathing, and was lethargic. For three days, he was in intensive care.

They said he was lucky.

In August 2013, a Florida child died after swallowing a detergent packet. Officials are all but certain that a New Jersey child's death also can be attributed to one.

The single-use pods are meant to be a convenience, especially for the elderly, who may have trouble lifting heavy bottles or seeing well enough to pour the right amount. But many are brightly colored and look like candy.

Not long after the packets were introduced, reports of child poisonings started. In 2012, the first call to the Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia came in April, and was followed by 213 more. Since then, the center has averaged nearly a call a day.

"Kids are getting into [the packets] quite a bit," said Fred Henretig, the center's senior toxicologist and associate medical director. "This is a significant problem."

Nationally, by the end of 2013, more than 17,000 cases involving children 6 or younger - most of whom had eaten the packets - were reported to poison control centers, according to a study in November in the journal Pediatrics. Even that figure is considered low, since reporting is voluntary.

In eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, areas served by the Children's Hospital center, 22 youngsters like Landon were admitted to critical-care units.

The packets contain concentrated detergent in a thin wrapper that dissolves easily in water. In ingestion, that would be saliva.

The child is "putting this little, delicious-looking bauble in his mouth, and it instantly dissolves and bursts, shooting very concentrated liquid down his throat," Henretig said.

The pods are more dangerous than bottled detergent. "Kids are curious and are willing to taste anything, but they're not crazy," Henretig said. "If they take a sip of laundry detergent and it tastes like hell, they are not going to drink the rest."

But if it's in a packet, they don't have a chance to spit it out: "They're getting the equivalent of a cup of laundry detergent all in one big swallow."

The caustic ingredients might damage a child's stomach or esophagus. When the contents are swallowed and absorbed, "it seems to have some systemic effects," Henretig said. "We see children who become profoundly lethargic, who seem to have difficulty maintaining their airway and breathing. . . . These are life-threatening injuries."

West Conshohocken-based ASTM International, a group that determines safety standards for products and processes, has taken on the issue. Weighing in are manufacturers, regulators, consumer groups, engineers, and parents. However, it may be several months, perhaps several years, before a final determination is made, said Len Morrissey, ASTM's director of consumer affairs.

He said the group will likely devise a list of options, perhaps including container lids that are harder for kids to open.

"There are pros and cons to everything," Morrissey said. "We want to make sure we're not causing any unintended consequences, such as seniors not being able to get into packages, and then leaving them open" and then the grandkids visit.

The American Cleaning Institute has launched an education campaign including online information, mommy bloggers, and laundry posters. A recent institute survey found that 70 percent of respondents stored household cleaners in locked cabinets, but only 34 percent took the same precaution with laundry packets.

"We can prevent these accidents if we all work in harmony," said Nancy Bock, head of education at the institute. "The message is strong and simple: Keep these products out of reach of children."

Henretig said he didn't think education will suffice. "This is not a matter of parents being non-vigiliant. . . . Kids act very fast."

He's reminded of the 1970s, when child-resistant caps for medications and household products came out. Only then did the rising number of poisonings taper off, "although there are so many new toxic products that come out every year . . . we just can't keep up with it."

His advice for anyone with small children: Use bottled detergent.

Farrell does, and she urges others to do so. "I don't want any other parent to go through what I went through," she said.

215-854-5147 @sbauers