By Randy Dotinga
MONDAY, Nov. 10, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Laundry detergent "pods" seriously sickened more than 700 U.S. children and killed at least one in a recent two-year period, a new report reveals.
Poison control centers across the country logged more than 17,000 calls about children exposed to the convenient laundry aids during that same period, researchers also found.
"Something about these pods makes them highly toxic. They pose a very serious poisoning threat to kids," said report co-author Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
"Parents need to make an informed decision if they bring these products into their homes," Smith added. "We're recommending that they not use these pods if they have young children in the home."
The pods are brightly colored single-use packets of laundry detergent enclosed in a water-soluble membrane that dissolves in the wash. They're a relatively new alternative to traditional liquid and powder detergents. But they're dangerous to kids, especially those under 3, Smith said.
"They [young children] are curious, and they have no concept of danger," he said. "They explore their environment by putting things in their mouth, and they see something that's colorful and can easily mistake it for candy or juice."
Dr. Jeanie Jaramillo, managing director of the Texas Panhandle Poison Center, agreed. "They [pods] are also soft and pliable, so kids may find that they are fun to squeeze or play with," she added.
But when kids bite into a detergent pod, "they get this big squirt of concentrated chemicals, a large amount of fluid," Smith said.
The report authors launched their research because the pods -- available in the United States for about four years -- have become a significant poisoning threat. In the past, laundry detergents weren't a major poisoning problem for kids, Smith said.
"It's a relatively new phenomenon. We've seen children coming into our hospital emergency department with really severe consequences of ingesting contents from these detergent pods," Smith added.
The report authors analyzed statistics from U.S. poison control centers from 2012-13. They found 17,230 reports of kids younger than 6 who were injured by laundry pods, mostly (80 percent) by ingesting them.
Children under 3 accounted for about three-quarters of cases, and 8 percent had what the researchers called a moderate or major medical issue as a result.
More than 700 children required hospital admission, often to an intensive care unit, Smith said. "In many cases, they were in a coma," he said.
In addition to one death, more than 100 children needed to be intubated -- to have a tube put down their throats to help them breathe.
Smith said he hasn't seen any reports about what makes the laundry pods so toxic. Pods of dishwashing detergent are also available, but they're chemically different and aren't causing this kind of widespread problem, he said.
Jaramillo said the sudden release of the contents into a child's mouth can cause kids to cough and choke, putting them at risk for aspiration -- inhaling liquid into their lungs. The liquid can also damage children's eyes, she said.
Pod manufacturers have responded to concerns by putting latches on pod containers and making them opaque so kids can't see inside them. But Smith said more needs to be done to make the containers truly child-resistant and to provide proper warning labels.
Some exposures are occurring in stores or in transit from store to a home cupboard, one expert said.
"I've heard parents describe these exposures occurring at stores when these products are placed in the shopping cart, and the kids start playing with them, or when the groceries are being put away at the house," said Dr. Jakub Furmaga, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
If you suspect a child has ingested a pod because of symptoms like eye irritation, burning in the mouth or gastrointestinal problems, call your local poison center or your physician immediately, he said.
The report appears online Nov. 10 and in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics.