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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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Household Cleansers Pose Dangers to Those With Dementia

Caretakers Warned of a Growing Problem
WebMD Health News

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 Center.

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 with emergencies.

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