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Be Prepared - Poisonings Can Happen in Any Home

The following Healthy Kids column originally appeared in the March 17, 2003 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


Childhood is a wonderful time of exploration and discovery. For very young children, this means touching and tasting the many things they find around the home, sometimes with tragic results.

Common household items such as mouthwash, household cleaners, alcoholic beverages and even vitamins can be harmful or even fatal if swallowed by children.

Each year, poison centers across the United States handle more than a million calls related to poisonings of children aged 5 and under. Sadly, nearly 30 of these children will die.

Nearly all pediatric household poisonings involve children swallowing everyday household items. The common thread in these cases is that the child’s parents think such an emergency could never happen in their home.

The best strategy for protecting your child is to follow the Boy Scouts’ motto: “Be Prepared.” Here’s a list I like to call the “Poison Prevention Top 10”:

  1. Keep potential poisons locked up and out of children’s sight and reach. Educate your children, yourself, grandparents and caregivers about possible poisons in the home.
  2. Post the new nationwide poison hotline number (1-800-222-1222) near your telephone to access the Missouri Regional Poison Center or the poison center nearest your home.
  3. Buy products in child-resistant packaging whenever possible. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that child-resistant packaging for aspirin and oral prescription medication has saved the lives of about 900 children since packaging requirements were introduced in the 1970s. But remember, this packaging is child-resistant, not childproof, and is designed to keep children away from the product only for a short time before a parent intervenes.
  4. Never leave potentially poisonous household products unattended while in use. Many exposures occur when an adult takes a moment to answer the telephone or doorbell.
  5. Remember that there is no such thing as a “safe zone” when it comes to poisoning. National statistics indicate that 41 percent of poisoning accidents occur in the kitchen, followed by 26 percent in the garage or basement, 21 percent in the bathroom and 12 percent in the bedroom. Interestingly, many poisonings occur during a family’s move to a new home, when potentially hazardous items are on the floor or easy to reach.  
  6. Avoid taking medicine in front of children, as they tend to copy the actions of adults. Also, never refer to medicine as “candy” and always follow exact dosage directions in giving children medications.
  7. Store pesticides in a locked cabinet or garden shed. A recent survey by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed that almost half (47 percent) of all households with children under the age of 5 had at least one pesticide stored in an unlocked cabinet and less than four feet off the ground.
  8. Know the botanical names of all plants inside and outside your home. Some plants and flowers can be toxic if eaten. If you don’t know the name of a plant, have it identified at the nearest gardening center in your area.
  9. Have your home tested for lead-based paint if it was built before 1971. Children can become lead-poisoned from ingesting chips or breathing dust from old, heavily-leaded paint on walls and other surfaces.
  10. Install carbon monoxide alarms in all bedrooms and on every floor of your home, at least 15 feet from fuel-burning appliances.

As we celebrate National Poison Prevention Week, March 16-22, hospitals and emergency service providers urge families to evaluate the risks in their homes and to prepare themselves for reacting to poison exposures by children.

Specialists at Missouri’s Regional Poison Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital handle more than 105,000 calls annually. They say even careful parents can find themselves faced with a poisoning emergency.

“Poison exposures can happen in any home, even those with the most caring and attentive parents,” says Michael Thompson, director of the Missouri Regional Poison Center. “The key is to plan carefully to avoid exposures, thus reducing the chances of an incident in your home. If a poisoning does occur, it’s important that the adult react calmly and quickly to take appropriate steps.”

Those steps, Thompson says, are to:

  • Call 911 if the person is unconscious.
  • Call the poison center if the person is conscious.
  • Be ready with important information, such as the child’s name, age, weight, condition and existing health conditions or problems.
  • Know the substance involved and how it contacted the child, any first aid which may have been given and whether the child has vomited.
  • Know your location and how long it will take you to get to a hospital.


To receive a free poison prevention packet, call the Missouri Regional Poison Center at 314-772-8300. The packet includes a sheet of Mr. Yuk stickers, a magnet with the Poison Center number, an “Emergency Action for Poisoning” card, and brochures with tips for safeguarding children.

While poisonings can happen in any home, preparation is the most effective defense. The best treatment for poisoning, after all, is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, click here.

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