Household Cleansers Pose Dangers to Those With Dementia
Caretakers Warned of a Growing Problem
Feb. 24, 2000 (Atlanta) - The man left his 88-year-old grandmother alone for
just a few minutes. When he returned, the bottle of pine cleaner he had left on
a countertop sat empty. She stood nearby, in a state of confusion. He called
911. At the emergency room, the woman didn't respond to voices, and her
breathing was labored.
This true story, say the authors of an article in the medical journal
Chest, illustrates a growing problem: that of people with dementia
swallowing toxic substances, especially popular cleaning solutions containing
pine oil. As the elderly population grows, and more people with dementia are
cared for at home, they expect such stories to become more common.
In 1997, the U.S. Poison Control Registry reported nearly 10,000 instances
of people drinking pine oil, with nearly 90% of those incidents taking place in
the home, writes Gary P. Zaloga, MD, of the Washington (D.C.) Hospital
While the elderly accounted for only 5% of those cases, Zaloga expects that
number to rise. According to the American Geriatrics Society, more than 34
million Americans (12% of the U.S. population) are 65 and older, and this
number will almost triple within 50 years.
When they swallow toxic substances, the elderly are at a greater risk of
death than younger victims. Because of their aging bodies, their livers and
kidneys do not remove toxins as well, and their stomachs allow greater amounts
of toxins to be absorbed. Also, their immune systems are suppressed, meaning
they are more susceptible to infections acquired after ingestion.
Zaloga notes that pine cleaners are particularly attractive because of their
consumer-friendly labels, color and fragrance. "In addition," he
writes, "pine oil is reported to have a pleasant taste."
After 16 days in intensive care, the grandmother in the case Zaloga cites
died of pneumonia. Zaloga says that while death due to pine oil ingestion is
relatively rare, occurring in less than 0.1% of cases, he saw a need to
increase awareness of the issue.
The story points to other areas of concern, such as how homes where demented
elderly patients live can be made safer, and how caretakers can prepare to deal
The Alzheimer's Association recommends that caretakers keep a list of
emergency phone numbers, check fire extinguishers and smoke alarms, and
regularly conduct fire drills. People with dementia who tend to wander can be
enrolled in the association's national Safe Return program; call (800) 272-3900
While people with dementia diseases such as Alzheimer's may see precautions
as a threat to their independence, experts say the dangers can be minimized.
According to the Alzheimer's Association and the Alzheimer's Outreach
organization, ways that caregivers and family members can unobtrusively create
a safer environment include:
- Installing door locks out of sight
- Using safety devices such as childproof locks and doorknobs to limit access
to places where knives, appliances, equipment, and cleaning fluids are
- Adding extra lighting in entries, outside landings, areas between rooms,
stairways, and bathrooms, as changes in levels of light can be disorienting.
Bright light can be diffused by removing or covering mirrors and glass-top
furniture and cover windows with blinds, shades or sheer draperies
- Placing contrasting colored rugs in front of doors or steps to help the
patient anticipate staircases and entrances
- Supervising the person in taking all medications
- Limiting the use of appliances and equipment such as mixers, grills,
knives, and lawnmowers
- Putting safety caps over electrical outlets
- Keeping matches and lighters out of reach
- Using flame retardant sheets and mattresses
- Enclosing a portion of the yard to provide a secure area for enjoying the
outdoors. Remove all poisonous plants, and keep garden chemicals in a locked
- Removing locks from bathroom doors and making sure medication, sharp
objects and toxic chemicals are removed or locked away