Children who bite into detergent packets experience wide range of symptoms, making it hard to pinpoint causes
This past spring, Edward Bottei punctured dozens of laundry detergent packets using a chisel-shaped instrument to see what it took to burst them.
The medical director of Iowa’s Poison Control Center was seeking explanations for a mystery that has stumped toxicologists: Why some children who bite into laundry detergent packets get hurt so badly, including in some cases needing to be intubated to help them breathe.
That question is one of many that poison-control experts have about so-called single-dose laundry detergent.
Children have been sampling regular detergent for years without much harm. But young children who accidentally burst packets of concentrated detergent have been hospitalized at a rate of about one a day in the U.S. since the products were rolled out widely in 2012. While at least seven people have died after ingesting their contents, thousands of children experienced only minor symptoms.
The wide range of medical outcomes has made it challenging for doctors and poison-control experts to pinpoint what about the laundry packets makes them much more potentially hazardous than conventional liquid or powdered detergent.
While the contents of the packets are highly concentrated, and the detergent can shoot out with force when the packets are burst, it isn’t clear what substances in them can cause life-threatening injuries. Especially puzzling is why some children have become drowsy after swallowing the chemicals.
“We don’t know why some children get so sick from laundry pods,” said Brandon Wills, a toxicologist and associate medical director at the Virginia Poison Center.
European regulators have stepped up rules for the product, requiring the addition of deterrents like bittering agents and tougher packets that are harder to burst. In the U.S., several detergent makers including Procter & Gamble Co. , Cot’n Wash Inc. and Sun Products Corp. said Tuesday they plan to coat their laundry packets in a foul-tasting substance to deter children from biting into them.
American manufacturers are facing pressure to implement further safety measures after taking earlier steps that included making their containers opaque and harder to open, and enlarging warning labels. They have been working with consumer-safety advocates on a set of voluntary standards that are similar to the European measures, and a vote is expected this month.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission provided input into the standards and will closely monitor their effectiveness, Chairman Elliot Kaye said. The CPSC has authority to enact mandatory standards if industry can’t come up with effective voluntary measures.
Knowing why this particular detergent delivery system can be so harmful, meanwhile, would help emergency-medicine experts better treat injured children, doctors say. But there isn’t a lot of information to go by. Consumer-product manufacturers have closely guarded the details of how they formulated and what kind of safety testing they did with laundry packets that encapsulate detergent inside a film that melts or disintegrates when submerged in water.
Unlike packaged-food products and cosmetics, which are required by the Food and Drug Administration to list their individual ingredients on their labels, most household cleaning products aren’t required to provide the same level of detail. Containers of P&G’s Tide Pods, for example, simply state the product “contains nonionic and ionic surfactants, ethoxylated polyethylene polyamine (polymer) and enzymes” and advise giving a glass of water or milk and calling a poison center if the product is accidentally swallowed.
A P&G spokesman said laundry detergent packets “are safe when stored away from children in their original packaging and used as intended,” and their contents can be twice as concentrated as other forms of liquid detergent. The company’s website, meanwhile, has product safety sheets that list the ingredients in Tide Pods and their respective functions.
Still, how the chemicals act separately or in unison when ingested can be difficult to pinpoint, medical experts said. “We just don’t have enough information or experiential science to know what effects they have on the human body,” said Rais Vohra, an associate professor of clinical emergency medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. It isn’t known, for example, what chemicals are responsible for the central nervous system depression evident in some children. “You don’t see that with ordinary soaps,” Dr. Vohra said.
In Sioux City, Iowa, Dr. Bottei decided to study the physical properties of laundry packets to see if they played a role in the severity of the accidents involving children.
‘We don’t know why some children get so sick from laundry pods.’
—Brandon Wills, a toxicologist and associate medical director at the Virginia Poison Center.
He found that packets containing thicker detergent required more force to burst. The brands of laundry packets with thinner liquids could make the detergent more likely to get into a child’s airways, Dr. Bottei said. He has documented his preliminary findings in a research paper that is under review.
The California Poison Control System in Madera, Calif., has found a disproportionately high number of severe poisoning incidents occurred when children ingested All Mighty Pacs, made by Sun Products. The All laundry packets contained thinner liquids than some other brands.
A Sun Products spokeswoman said the company wasn’t aware of the issue.