'No such thing as child-proof': How to avoid accidental poisoning in the home

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Be careful to avoid accidental poisoning in the home
Be careful to avoid accidental poisoning in the home

As parents the world over can confirm, the curiosity of children can lead them into plenty of unforeseen and potentially dangerous scenarios.

Accidental poisoning strikes where it is least expected, which is why far greater awareness is needed for everyone ­­– not only the parents of small children.

"Approximately 90% of accidental poisonings worldwide occur within the home environment, and the majority of such cases seen in Netcare emergency departments involve babies and very young children who have ingested something that could be harmful," reveals says Rene Grobler, Netcare’s national quality and systems manager for trauma and emergency.

She adds that, distressingly, the average age of patients treated for accidental poisoning ­– a category that excludes medicine dosage mistakes and intentional overdose – is just one year old, according to Medibank statistics, which are a record of patients attended to at Netcare hospitals emergency departments nationally since 2011.

The highest number of accidental poisonings, accounting for 44 per cent, was among children aged one year and younger.

"At this age, babies start crawling around or using walking rings and it is surprising how quickly they can reach into unsecured cupboards or a traveller’s suitcase to access cleaning products, medicines, garden products such as pesticides, weed killers and fertiliser, or any number of potentially toxic substances," Grobler explains.

Toddlers aged two to three years were involved in 27% of accidental poisonings recorded, while another 13% were aged three and four years old.

"Young children in these age groups are exploring the world with great curiosity and very little understanding of the dangers of putting things in their mouths," she cautions.

Top safety tips to avoid accidental poisoning

Store any potentially poisonous or toxic items in cupboards with safety locks, and ensure that the cupboards are locked at all times. This includes medicines, household chemicals and cleaning products, alcohol, gardening pesticides and many other common household items.

Keep handbags, shopping bags and hand sanitiser safely out of reach. Make sure that visiting guests’ medicines are stored out of reach and sight of children.

Be sure to dispose of unused medicines safely, preferably by handing them into a pharmacy. Choose child-resistant medication packaging, wherever possible.

Never store anything that is not meant for human consumption in packaging associated with food and drink. Be sure to keep cleaning products in their original packaging.

Never suggest to a child that medicines are 'sweets' or 'cooldrink'.

No such thing as ‘child-proof’ 

It has been recorded that some types of child-resistant packaging can be opened more easily when children bite on them, and this may occur if the child breaks through the packaging with their teeth or gums and can access the contents.

Some types of packaging that are intended to be supposedly inaccessible to children may be compromised by pressure changes, such as altitude changes when travelling by plane, for instance.

"Therefore, it is safer to adopt the philosophy that there is no such thing as ‘child-proof’ or ‘child-safe’ packaging," Grobler says. 

"Whenever you travel, be aware of the possibility that unsuspecting inquisitive children, either at your destination or when you arrive back home, maybe tempted to explore your luggage. Take the appropriate precautions such as keeping your suitcase, handbag or toiletry bag locked or otherwise secured."

Grobler recommends that parents make a point of ensuring house guests are alerted to the need to secure their medicines, and any other potentially harmful items that they may be bringing into the home, for the safety of children in the home.

What to do if poisoning is suspected

"If you have any reason to suspect accidental poisoning, do not wait for symptoms to develop but rather seek medical care immediately," explains Mande Toubkin, general manager: emergency, trauma, transplant and corporate social investment at Netcare.

Many people still mistakenly believe that in cases of accidental poisoning, the person should be encouraged to vomit to expel the substance. In many cases, this course of action may cause the person further harm, and therefore expert medical advice must be sought immediately.

If you need help, call:

Netcare 911’s national emergency operations centre (082 911) open 24 hours a day

The Tygerberg Poison Information Centre (0861 555 777)

Try to identify what poison may have been taken and if possible establish the quantity or dose that has been consumed because these are important details for the medical professionals to determine the treatment required.

"When performing first aid on a child or adult who may have been poisoned, it is very important to avoid touching, tasting or breathing in the poison yourself. If the poison has been breathed in, move the person to a well-ventilated area so that they can breathe fresh air," Toubkin says. 

She adds that awareness and vigilance can help prevent accidents involving toxins in the home.

"While the vast majority of accidental poisoning patients treated within Netcare emergency departments made a full recovery, tragically, this is not always the case."

"Whether or not children are living at home, it is well worthwhile developing safer habits and being aware of the dangers common household products may pose," she says. 

"It is always 'better to be safe than sorry', and developing awareness of potential accidental poisoning risks in the home and addressing these immediately could save a life," Toubkin concludes.

Submitted to Parent24 by the Netcare Trauma Division


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