Poison prevention: Out of sight and locked up tight

It is natural for children to explore their environment as they grow and develop, but this can put them at risk of unintentional poisoning.  As children begin to climb and reach new things, they don’t necessarily have the experience to know what to avoid.  While adults may be deterred from consuming a substance by its bad taste, this is not the case with young children. Their sense of taste is different from an adult’s, resulting in the ability to drink substances like windshield washer fluid without the taste being a deterrent.

Although poisoning is a major cause of injury for all Canadians, researchers estimate that half of all poison exposures occur among children younger than six years of age.  Seven children aged 14 years and younger die every year inCanada from poisoning and another 1,700 are hospitalized.

Everyone, including front-line health care professionals and parents, can take simple, proactive steps to ensure that potentially harmful substances are kept safely out of reach of children. This is especially true because the majority of poisoning risks to children are common substances that can be found in most homes.  Medication is involved in 67 per cent of all unintentional poisonings of children age 14 and under. The remaining poisonings are caused by a wide range of products such as cleaners, alcohol, plants, fertilizers, pesticides, paint thinner, antifreeze and beauty products.

Poison prevention requires vigilant behaviour by adults in all homes that children live in or visit.  Although the law requires child-resistant packaging for certain medications, child-resistant packaging is not child proof. Packaging is considered child-resistant when up to 20 per cent of young children may be able to open containers in short periods of time, and more if given longer periods of time.

Safe storage is therefore essential. Substances should be stored appropriately and safely – both up high and locked up. Medications should be kept in a locked box with a combination lock or padlock, household cleaners, garden and automotive products should be kept in locked bins or cupboards and all medications and other potential poisons should be kept in their original containers for easy and accurate identification. Products no longer in their original container pose a higher risk of ingestion.

In the event that a poisoning does occur, caregivers need to have accessible and timely information for help in determining whether a child is at risk from a potential poisoning and what actions they should take. Phone-in centres are effective in helping parents take appropriate action. Poison centres acrossCanadareceive about 160,000 phone calls each year. Close to 80,000 of those calls come from frantic parents concerning children younger than six. Although the majority of parents in a survey said they would call the poison centre first for advice if their child was exposed to poison at home, just as many do not know the number of their local poison centre or have it easily accessible. The number of the local poison centre should be kept in easily accessible locations, like posted on the fridge or stored in a home or cell phone.

At times, it may not be possible to tell if a poisoning has occurred before it is too late. This is the case with carbon monoxide. Known as “the silent killer” because it is colourless, odourless, and tasteless, it is undetectable by individuals. The majority of unintentional carbon monoxide exposures occur in the home because it is produced by sources that run many common household appliances and heating sources. Children are also more susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning because their smaller bodies process carbon monoxide differently than adults.  Every home should have properly functioning carbon monoxide alarms in key areas such as outside sleeping areas. Studies have shown that half of all carbon monoxide poisoning deaths could be prevented by carbon monoxide detectors.

Everyone has a role to play in preventing unintentional poisoning in children.  Health care professionals are a key source of information for parents and patients and parents should take proactive steps to keep their children safe from exposures.

Safe Kids Canada is the national injury prevention program of The Hospital for Sick Children.