Nov. 7, 2001 -- Shirley Rouse of Houston was panic-stricken when she discovered that her 2-year-old son Will had eaten the tiny, white, silica beads that he'd found in her new purse. "He asked if he could eat the 'candy,' " says Rouse. "I told him that the beads weren't candy and that he needed to throw the package away." Rouse left the room for only a few moments, but it was time enough for Will to swallow what he believed was a treat.
The first thing Rouse did was to assess the situation -- how sick was Will, and how many of the beads had he eaten? Not very, and not a lot. Then she grabbed the beads and called her local poison control center. Poison Control told her that the beads, used to absorb moisture and commonly found in new handbags and luggage, were nontoxic. But Rouse was still shaken.
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She had good reason to be: Accidental childhood poisonings are common, and they don't always have good outcomes. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers' Toxic Exposure Surveillance System, in 1998 alone more than one million unintentional poisonings among children under the age of 6 were reported to U.S. poison control centers. Nineteen of these poisonings resulted in the deaths of children under the age of 6, the majority from ingesting common household agents such as nail polish remover, suntan lotion, mercury (found in thermometers), lighter fluid, and boric acid (found in pesticides).
Luckily, most poisonings involving kids under age 6 result in minor or no health problems, in part because the substances ingested are often not toxic, but also because parents follow proper first-aid procedures.
Apparently, Rouse did nearly everything correctly after she discovered that Will had eaten the beads, experts say. For starters, she contacted the right emergency resource, Poison Control, whose number she had posted next to her phone.
"The poison control center is actually better equipped to assess the situation than your pediatrician. They have volumes of information about which remedy is best for the particular toxic agent that has been ingested," says Keith M. Perrin, MD, Louisiana chairman of Safe Kids and a pediatrician at Napoleon Pediatrics in New Orleans. (Of course, if your area does not have a local poison control center, you should call 911.)