Preventing poisonings

Mr. Yuk, the image used in labeling substances that are poisonous if ingested, was designed as a way to help children learn to avoid ingesting poisons. The stickers featuring Mr. Yuk usually have the national toll-free phone number of the poison control center that can offer guidance if poisoning has occurred or is suspected.

For the week of March 16-22, the North Dakota Department of Health, in observance of National Poison Prevention Week, is encouraging people to take measures to avoid unintentional poisonings. Poison Prevention Week is an opportunity to remind parents, grandparents, caregivers and the public about the dangers of poisoning and to provide some basic prevention strategies to avoid a serious episode.

A poison is any product or substance that can harm someone if it is used in the wrong way by the wrong person or in the wrong amount. Some items that could potentially be poisonous include household products, chemicals, drugs (prescription, over-the-counter, herbal, illegal or animal medicines), snake bites, spider bites and scorpion stings. Poisons can enter the body through the eyes and/or ears, on or through the skin, by breathing them or by swallowing.

Each year, more than two million poisonings are reported to the poison centers in the U.S. Approximately 90 percent of poisonings happen at home and 51 percent of poisonings involve children under the age of six, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. The majority of fatal poisonings occur among adults, especially older adults.

Diana Read, Injury/Violence Prevention Program director for the North Dakota Department of Health, said there are probably a number of reasons why the majority of fatal poisonings occur among adults. One reason could be that the substance they have ingested may interact with other drugs in their body, she added. However, North Dakota has a prescription drug monitoring system, so that is a plus, Read said. North Dakota is involved in a program called the North Dakota Attorney’s General’s Take Back Program where people can dispose of unused medications.

The most common substance causing accidental poisoning is prescription drugs for adults, specifically drug overdoses of prescription pain medications, Read said. “Prescription drug overdoses have taken over as the leading cause of unintended deaths,” she added. There has been a significant amount of illegal activity with prescription drugs, Read continued. Prescription drugs have become very addictive and people are looking to feed their addiction, she said.

For children, Read said the most dangerous substance causing accidental poisoning in children is mouthwash, due to the

alcohol content. “People worry about bleaches, but they really need to worry about other substances.”

In 2013, there were over 5,300 exposure calls made to the National Poison Helpline, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. Of those 5,300 calls, 54 percent were for children younger than age 6, who had a misadventure serious enough for someone to call for help.

The highest number of calls made to the poison control center, according to Read, was for analgesics such as acetaminophen, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen; household cleaning substances such as bleaches and laundry detergents; and cosmetics such as hand sanitizers, lotions and toothpaste.

Some recommendations from the North Dakota Department of Health to prevent poisoning include keeping all medicines, household chemicals and other poisonous substances away from children and food; warning children to never put medicines, chemicals, plants or berries in their mouths unless an adult says it’s alright; never storing poison in food or beverage containers; read all labels and follow instructions carefully; putting all unused medications in a sturdy, securely sealed container and then in the trash where children and pets can’t reach them; not carrying medicine in a purse or diaper bag since children like to play with them; not putting decorative lamps and candles that contain lamp oil where children can reach them since lamp oil is toxic; keeping windows and/or doors open or run fans when using strong cleaning products; never mixing cleaning products together and having the national poison control center phone number with other emergency contacts available.

“It’s convenient to keep cleaning supplies in a cabinet, but people forget that kids can get at them,” Read said. Parents should also remember that kids are very curious, she continued, and if they see mom or dad taking pills, then they might want to try them as well. Read also recommended that parents crawl around the house on their hands and knees to see what children can reach. What’s more, baby-sitters or grandparents or other caregivers should have the current weight of the child, she added, because that’s often the first question the Poison Control Center will ask.

One other concern Read had is that some everyday, harmless substances look like poisonous substances. For example, blue sports drinks, which are safe to drink, also look like windshield wiper fluid or mouthwash. Apple juice tends to look like some household cleaners, and some candy looks like chewable cold medicine or calcium supplement chewable tablets.

In case of a poisoning or a questionable episode, people should call 911 if the person is unconscious, having difficulty breathing or not breathing. Also recommended is to not give the person anything to eat or drink; call the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222 immediately; bring the product or bottle to the phone to offer a detailed explanation to the Poison Control Center staff; do not give syrup of ipecac or activated charcoal unless told to do so by the Poison Control Center or a physician.

“Most poisonings are preventable,” said Read. “I encourage all adults to take preventive measures to protect children and themselves from unintentional poisonings. Many of the most dangerous poisons are things found in a home such as antifreeze and window washer products, some medicines, corrosive cleaners like drain openers or toilet bowl cleaners, fuels like kerosene and lamp oil or pesticides.”

For more information about poison prevention or to request stickers and magnets with the national poison control number, contact Read, North Dakota Department of Health, at 800-472-2286 (press 1) or visit the website at (