They're convenient but could make your child extremely ill. Those colorful and handy little laundry packs, that many households are switching to as an alternative to boxed detergents and heavy bottles, are causing some children to end up in the emergency room.
There have been almost 250 cases reported this year to poison control. These cases are only a tiny fraction of the thousands of poisoning calls received every year about household medicines and other cleaning supplies, but doctors are concerned. The symptoms they see in connection with ingesting the packets, such as nausea and breathing problems, are more severe than typical detergent poisoning.
"We're not quite sure why it's happening," said Dr. Kurt Kleinschmidt, a Dallas toxicologist and professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "But we've clearly had some kids who have become much more ill. We look at these pods as being clearly more dangerous than the standard detergent."
Detergent manufacturers introduced versions of the packets earlier this year. They're intended to be dropped into a laundry machine in place of liquid or powder detergent.
Several poison control centers started to get calls from parents about the packets in March and April, soon after they were introduced in earnest. Texas reported 71 instances of exposure this year, all but one in March or later. Missouri reported 25 cases related to the packets, and Illinois reported 26.
"If you look at the Tide Pods, they're bright blue and bright red and they look very similar to some of the ribbon candy," said Julie Weber, director of the Missouri Poison Control Center in St. Louis.
Paul Fox, a spokesman for Procter & Gamble, the parent company of Tide, says all cleaning products need to be handled carefully. He said Tide was working with poison control centers and advocacy groups to make sure parents know more about the risks.
"The packs themselves are safe, regardless of who manufactures them, provided that they are used for their intended purpose," Fox said. "The risk becomes when they're left like any other household product within reach of small, inquisitive hands."
If you swallow detergent it can make you sick, but doctors say these packets seem to make children more ill than traditional laundry detergents.
Dr. Michael Buehler of the Carolinas Poison Center said there were several possible reasons why, including that the packets carry a full cup's worth of detergent in bite-size form or the detergent in the packet might activate more quickly or differently.
"The children get sicker, more severe, and they do this quicker than what we've seen with standard liquid laundry exposure," Buehler said.
Poison control centers in several states have issued or are preparing warnings for local emergency rooms and parents.
The packets are becoming more popular with consumers, so poison control centers and physicians want parents to be aware that the bright colors and toy-like shapes may tempt small children.
Several of the detergent manufacturers say they are now looking at new safeguards, such as childproof packets, for their products.
If you like the convenience of the laundry packets make sure that they are kept in a place where your little one can't get a hold of them.