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The U.S. House of Representatives recently announced plans to cut $27 million from the federal poison control program – a move that would effectively lead to the closure of many U.S. poison centers, causing health care costs to skyrocket and erode the nation’s public health system.

“Poison centers provide a valuable service to the public, by offering emergency help and advice on how to treat exposure to deadly substances,” says Julie Weber, director of the Missouri Poison Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. “Closing these centers would have a tremendously negative impact on public health.”

Accidental poisoning is the second-leading cause of unintentional injury death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trailing only automobile accidents. U.S. poison centers took more than four million calls in fiscal year 2009, offering free, confidential information and professional medical advice to those exposed to poisons ranging from medications to carbon monoxide to snake bites to food poisoning.

As part of a sweeping series of proposed budget cuts introduced this month, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, (R-KY), announced that the committee had proposed eliminating $27 million from the federal poison control program in the continuing resolution – a bill that would fund the government after March 4, 2011.

Study after study has illustrated the cost-benefit of poison centers. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that poison centers were second only to vaccinations in prevention cost-effectiveness. A 2008 study conducted in Arizona and published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology found that 70 percent of patients treated at home with the help of a poison center would have otherwise paid unnecessary medical expenses at their local hospital. That study estimated that poison centers saved $33 million in state-funded health care costs in one year.

In Missouri, the poison center saves $4 to $9 in unnecessary health care costs for every dollar spent.

 “Poison centers treat nearly 75 percent of all exposure cases at home, without the patient having to go to a health care facility,” said Jim Hirt, executive director of the American Association of Poison Control Centers. “And in 2009, more than 16 percent of all poison center exposure calls came from a health care facility, meaning doctors, nurses and other medical professionals rely upon the poison center for professional advice. If that line goes dead, it will be disastrous.”

In recent years, poison centers have also emerged as a leader in public health surveillance, thanks to the National Poison Data System, the only near-real time data system containing all poison exposures reported to the U.S. poison centers. In addition, poison centers provided support to state and local governments responding to the H1N1 flu pandemic. In 2010, they managed health exposures and collected invaluable data for public health agencies on the impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. Poison centers recently were also the first to raise the alarm about the toxic effects of synthetic marijuana and products marketed as bath salts.

“Poison centers are crucial to identifying threats to public health and informing the community before they become a widespread pandemic,” says Dr. Anthony Scalzo, medical director of the Missouri Poison Center. Scalzo was one of the first in the country to alert communities to the danger of K2, a synthetic marijuana substitute responsible for more than 3,000 phone calls to poison centers nationwide since 2010. “Without the early detection that poison centers provide, communities will be more vulnerable to these harmful substances that are sold legally every day.”

Poison centers also provide direct consultation to health care facilities, creating treatment recommendations for patients who come to hospitals and health centers after being exposed to toxins. Poison center medical directors are available to provide vital consultation with physicians in their individual states 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Currently, 57 poison centers cover all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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