By Steven Reinberg
MONDAY, April 25, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- A growing number of small children are getting their hands and mouths on colorful detergent pods, with serious and sometimes fatal consequences, a new study finds.
Among more than 62,000 calls made to emergency departments for poisoning from any kind of laundry or dishwashing detergent from 2013 to 2014, 17 children were in a coma, six stopped breathing, four had fluid in their lungs and difficulty breathing, and two died.
"Over 60 percent of these calls were due to laundry detergent packets," said lead researcher Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio.
"That's about 30 children a day, or one child about every 45 minutes," he said. "Over the two years of the study, poisoning from detergent packets increased 17 percent, and in 2015 there was another 7 percent increase," Smith said.
Laundry detergent packets are more toxic than other forms of detergent and cause more hospitalizations and serious medical problems, Smith explained.
These packets look attractive to children, who could mistake them for food or candy, he said.
"All they have to do is put them in their mouth and bite down and the packet will burst, and once these toxic chemicals get down their throat the game's over," Smith added.
Given this growing problem, Smith said that parents of children under the age of 6 years should not have these products in the home. "They should use traditional detergents, which are far less toxic," he said.
A recent standard to make these products safer was adopted by detergent packet manufacturers, but the voluntary standard isn't strong enough because the number of poisoning cases keep increasing, Smith said.
"We may have to strengthen that standard," he said. "If that doesn't work, then these products should be taken off the market, because we do have safer, effective alternatives."
"There is no reason why we should be seeing children rushed to hospitals in [a] coma and to see two deaths over two years," Smith said. "We don't have to expose children to these threats."
For the study, Smith and colleagues analyzed data from calls made to U.S. poison control centers in 2013 and 2014 after unintentional exposures to laundry or dishwasher detergent involving children under the age of 6.
During those years, the number of poisonings increased for all types of detergents, but it was greatest for laundry detergent packets (17 percent), followed by dishwasher detergent packets (14 percent), the researchers found.
Laundry detergent pods, especially those with liquid detergent rather than granules, were the most harmful to children who ingested them, Smith said.
Two-year-olds accounted for slightly more than 16 percent of dishwasher detergent poisonings and just over 30 percent of laundry detergent poisonings, the researchers found.
The report was published online April 25 in the journal Pediatrics.
When a child swallows a packet, parents should immediately call poison control officials and follow their instructions, Smith said.
Dr. Barbara Pena, research director in the emergency department at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami, said companies have to do something to make these products safer.
People need to keep these products out of sight so children can't get into them, she said. "They should be treated just like medicine."
Ideally, parents of young children would not have them in the home, Pena said.
Jeanie Jaramillo is managing director of the Texas Panhandle Poison Center and an assistant professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center's School of Pharmacy, in Amarillo. "The increasing use of these products indicates a preference for the packets over non-packet detergent forms, despite the dangers," she said.
"Unfortunately, the industry standards for packaging are inadequate to protect children from the dangers that these products pose," Jaramillo said. Although the packages are now opaque, the packets are still brightly covered and not tamper-proof, she said.
"From a poison-control perspective, use of individual, child-resistant packaging around each packet is likely to be the best single measure for reducing poisonings in children from these products," Jaramillo said.
In 2015, Consumer Reports removed liquid laundry pods from its "recommended" list because of the dangers they pose to small children.
"Even one death from exposure to laundry detergent packets is too many," Jaramillo said.
In response to the study, the American Cleaning Institute said Monday that manufacturers are working on a series of packaging and labeling steps that will be part of new international standards intended to reduce accidental exposure to the cleaning products.
The standards will include "secure package closures designed to challenge the typical strength, mental acuity and/or dexterity of a young child," the institute said in a news release.
There will also be first-aid instructions on the products' packages, the group said.