The day started normally for dozens of families across the state. Then, at some point, things took a turn.
A father spotted his young daughter eating pain relief cream. A mother discovered her 6-year-old holding a package with six Children's Tylenols missing. A frantic father wondered if he should force his little girl to vomit after she gulped down silica gel, the small packet commonly packaged with new consumer products such as cameras and shoes.
Taking the call from each anxious parent was an expert at the Illinois Poison Center, where staffers field about 250 calls daily involving everything from attempted suicides to accidental overdoses to carbon monoxide poisonings. The Illinois center, which serves one of the largest populations of the nation's poison centers, delivers services to an estimated 13 million people.
Fortunately, on this day none of the children was seriously harmed.
"We are the calming voice on the receiving end," said clinical toxicologist Carol DesLauriers, the center's clinical services director.
Much of what the poison center experts do is medical triage, ensuring that people in urgent situations get to the emergency room as quickly as possible, and that people who don't need to go, don't.
About 10 percent of calls are urgent enough to require emergency treatment. Most of the callers' problems can be handled over the phone.
Among the poisoning cases handled during a recent day: a man who secretly spiked a drink with Clear Eyes solution and then mistakenly drank it himself, a woman whose car reeked of exhaust fumes and was experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, and a husband calling about his wife, who had been drinking heavily and swallowed 20 pills containing medicine prescribed to treat seizures and panic attacks.
The man who drank the eye solution was told to head to the hospital if he felt drowsy or lethargic; otherwise he likely would suffer no ill effects. Because the woman in the car described symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning — headache, nausea, light-headedness — she was told to go to an emergency room so her blood levels could be tested. The husband whose wife had taken the pills was advised to hang up and call 911 immediately.
The first poison control center, or poison information center, was founded in Chicago in 1953. Many of the early centers were located in pharmacies or emergency rooms. Today, 57 centers operate across the U.S.
Illinois Poison Center operates a free 24-hour hotline staffed by specially trained experts, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists. In 2009 the nonprofit service handled more than 102,000 calls to the toll-free number 800-222-1222.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers was founded in 1958 to promote cooperation between centers in different cities and to standardize their operations. An additional part of the association's activities was poison prevention and education programs for both physicians and the general public.
At the Illinois Poison Center, staffers work out of their homes or in the center's call center at the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council, near Union Station, which is stocked with reference books. Information sheets tacked on cubicle walls reveal surprising particulars such as the number of cigarette butts that can be swallowed by a child before a trip to the emergency room is in order. (The answer is three.)
Some of the most frightening calls involve children, who are curious by nature and quick to get into things that are potentially dangerous. About 52 percent of the calls concerning exposure to a poison in 2009 involved children age 5 and under.
Accidental poisonings are largely preventable, but many parents don't take adequate precautions. A common mistake: leaving substances such as medications and household cleaners in places where children can reach them. Bottles of apple juice, Listerine and Pine Sol can look the same to young children.
Last month, the Food and Drug Administration advised that Tessalon liquid cough capsules should be kept in childproof containers because they resemble candy and could pose a risk to young children if ingested.
The agency said the drug has been approved to treat cough symptoms in patients older than 10 but its appearance might entice younger children who could suffer serious side effects or die if they take it.
From 1982 through May 2009, there have been seven cases where children younger than 10 accidentally ingested the capsules, according to the FDA. Five died.
Irais Todaro of downstate Carterville was getting her children ready for preschool when her son, Ethan, 4, grabbed a container of Lysol antibacterial cleaner and sprayed it in the face of her 3-year-old daughter, Julie.
"It was really scary," Todaro said. "It just takes a second for things to happen."
Todaro said a poison expert instructed her to rinse her daughter's face and eyes with warm water and that, an hour later, after the crying and swelling of one eye subsided, the youngster was fine.
Tips for protecting your family
-- Keep products in their original containers with their original labels.
-- Store cleaning products, medicine, and health and beauty products in a place where children can't reach them, ideally in a locked cabinet.
-- Discard unwanted, unused or old medications.
-- Read the label and follow directions every time you use a product.
-- Never refer to medicine as candy or make a game out of taking it.
-- Teach children to ask first before they eat or drink anything.
-- Do not take or give medication in the dark, and always use the measuring device that came with it, if any.
-- Keep tobacco products, lighters and matches, and alcoholic drinks out of the reach of children.
-- Identify poisonous plants in the home and remove them.
-- Clean up peeling paint on walls and windows.
Source: Illinois Poison Center