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Detergent packets remain enticing, toxic for children

The soap industry is altering its packaging, but is it enough?

detergent package health risks Credit: American Cleaning Institute

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Laundry and dishwasher detergent packets—also known as pods, pacs, and tabs—remain a danger for young children, according to a new study released this week in the journal Pediatrics.

Of particular concern are single-load laundry packets that hit the market in 2012. While they're a convenient alternative to powder or liquid detergents, they have also proven a serious health hazard for young children. Dishwasher tablets—which have been around a lot longer—are similarly dangerous when ingested.

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Analyzing data from 2013 and 2014 recorded by the National Poison Data System, researchers found 62,254 reported exposures to dishwasher or laundry detergents by children under the age of six. About 43.5 percent of the exposures had at least one clinical effect—most commonly, vomiting.

Though fewer incidents are cited, dishwasher detergent tabs also remain a concern.

While the study reviewed all types of detergent exposure, there were noteworthy differences between traditional detergents and the concentrated packets, which accounted for 59.6 percent of all exposures. Laundry packets also had a higher rate of incidence than dishwasher pacs—35.4 percent to 24.2 percent.

On top of that, laundry detergent packet exposures had more serious outcomes. Hospitalization was observed in 3.3 percent of laundry detergent packet exposures, compared to 0.2 percent for dishwasher tabs. In addition to two fatalities tied to laundry detergent packets, the study noted serious clinical effects including coma (17 cases), respiratory arrest (6 cases), and pulmonary edema (4 cases).

“Differences in chemical composition and concentration between laundry detergent packets and other types of detergents may account for the higher toxicity observed for laundry detergent packets,” the study said.

The issue is that the packets look much like colorful candy, enticing young children to lick or chew them. The powerful detergents are sealed in a water-soluble film, which quickly dissolves following contact with a child's saliva.

Consumer Reports goes so far as to strongly urge households where children younger than six are ever present to skip packets altogether, and no longer includes them on their list of recommended laundry detergents.

In response to the new study, the American Cleaning Institute (ACI) released a statement reminding parents and caregivers that proper storage and handling of laundry packets is essential in preventing accidental exposures. The ACI added:

“Manufacturers are implementing a series of packaging and labeling measures as part of a new international standard that will help reduce accidental exposures. The standard includes a menu of secure package closures designed to challenge the typical strength, mental acuity and/or dexterity of a young child. From this menu, manufacturers can choose a configuration that is effective at deterring child access while ensuring adults are able to open it and completely close it in between uses.

Manufacturers are being asked to make other changes under the new guidelines, as well. Warnings and immediate first-aid instructions are to be printed on packages, packets must be able to withstand the squeezing pressure of a child, and they should incorporate a bitter substance that kids will taste before any liquid contents are released.

Tide Pods are no longer sold using see-through packaging.

Starting in May, Procter & Gamble is launching a child-proof zipper on its pouches of Tide Pods and Gain Flings laundry packets. P&G has revised its packaging multiple times, and has already moved away from see-through packaging.

Sun Products, manufacturer of Sun and Wisk laundry packets, has also transitioned from transparent to opaque packaging, and has developed child deterrent tubs and pouches with seals that are more difficult for small children to open.

But while the industry has acknowledged that there's a problem, incidents continue to occur. During the first three months of 2016, poison centers nationwide received 2,840 reports of exposure to laundry packets by children five and younger, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. That figure is down only slightly from 2015. (“Exposure” is defined as contact with the substance in some way; for example, ingested, inhaled, absorbed by the skin or eyes, etc., regardless of toxicity or clinical manifestation.)

Needless to say, if you have kids or they often visit your home, you should always keep detergents locked up, high and out of their reach. And be sure to always follow product instructions carefully.

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