Toxic Substance Crisis in the Home : Children Are Chief Victims of Carelessly Stored Poisons

Times Staff Writer

Though last week’s news on toxic substances was dramatic--cyanide in grapes, chemicals on apples, illegal pesticide dumping in a Burbank stream and fumes from a chemical tanker truck shutting 10 miles of Interstate 5 for hours--your home can have just as many hazardous substance worries every day for you, your children and your pets.

The typical home, apartment or condominium, experts say, contains all manner of potential poisons, including household cleaners, paints, furniture polishes, wood strippers, charcoal lighter fluids, pesticides, perfumes and prescription or over-the-counter drugs stored in unsafe places.

Toxicologists note that almost any substance can be poisonous if misused.

“Most poisonings occur at home, the majority of them in children under 5, boys twice as often as girls,” said Dr. Marc Bayer, a toxicologist and director of the Los Angeles County Medical Assn.'s Poison Center on Wilshire Boulevard. “Every 30 seconds in this country, a child is poisoned.”


Poison Prevention Week

This week, National Poison Prevention Week, is a good time to safety-check the house, garage, workshop and garden.

It also may be time to get tips by visiting the “Name Your Poison” exhibit at the California Museum of Science and Industry on Exposition Boulevard near the Los Angeles Coliseum. Sponsored by the Olive View Medical Center Foundation in Sylmar, the exhibit is free, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and lasts through Sunday.

The display, for example, shows medicines that look exactly like candies and could be mistaken by a child or adult.


Poison center experts’ advice on medications: Never refer to medicine as “candy.” Never let a child take it unsupervised. Don’t save medicine. Check expiration dates and flush leftover drugs down the toilet.

Child-Proof Caps

Keep medications in bottles with child-proof caps. A bad trend that poison center personnel have detected is that many children are poisoned accidentally after taking medicine found at their grandparents’ home. “The elderly may have arthritis and just can’t open the child-proof tops, so they leave them open,” Bayer said. “Then the visiting child takes it.”

Last year, national statistics show, 35% of accidental drug poisonings of small children occurred at an elderly relative’s home. That’s why the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is funding research at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo to create a better child-resistant cap, one easier for older adults but not children to open.

Just this week, researchers unveiled a prototype, a cap that must be opened with the end of a spoon. “We’re trying to come up with a concept that the adults will use on medicines, so it is easier for the adults to use, but the kids can’t figure it out,” said Ken Giles of the safety group.

Since 1972, when safety caps were introduced, poisoning death rates in children are down almost 80%, he noted, adding, “We’re saving lives . . . but we’re not making much of a dent in actual poisoning incidents.”

Storage Safety Tips

Nationally, there were 107,000 children under age 5 accidentally poisoned in 1987, the safety group and the Poison Prevention Week Council in Washington report.


To improve the safety of garages and workshops, experts say owners should ensure that cleaning supplies, paints, solvents, pesticides and pool and spa chemicals have hard-to-open lids. They should be stored out of reach of children or pets, preferably in a locked cupboard. They never should be stored in unlabeled soda bottles or jars.

Inside the home, experts from the Los Angeles County Medical Assn.'s Poison Center advise, parents should consider poison perils from a child’s point of view: Crawl on hands and knees to check what’s stored under those kitchen and bathroom sinks. It may seem silly conduct but it could be a lifesaver.

At the science museum, exhibits show another poison pitfall: kitchen products that youngsters or those not fluent in English might confuse, like a plastic milk container that resembles a drain cleaner bottle or a green cleanser container that looks like a box of cheese. Beware of these.

And remember, any chemical or poisonous substance that will make people ill also will sicken pets. Animal experts say that motorists should keep antifreeze--which tastes sweet and is a favorite of dogs and cats--stored in a locked cupboard and wash it from areas where it has leaked or been drained.

Tough to Predict

Many homeowners poison themselves by mixing toxic substances, for example, bleach and ammonia, which combine to create a poisonous gas cloud that can cause respiratory and eye problems. The best advice: Never mix household products because it’s tough to predict what toxic fumes may be produced.

If there’s reason to suspect you, your child or pet has ingested a poison, or you’ve created a toxic mixture, call the nearest regional poison center for help.

Why call such centers, all of them 24-hour operations? “Because we can provide information about first aid advice and direct them to the appropriate source, hospital, doctor, or vet,” Bayer said. “Something they ate, for instance, Vaseline or a bite of a jade plant, is nontoxic, so they wouldn’t need to rush to an emergency room and have a bill for medical treatment.”


There are 104 poison centers nationwide. Locally, the LACMA Poison Center handles about 80,000 calls annually from residents of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. If you live in the 213 area code, call 484-5151; outside it, call (800) 777-6476.

If you are a resident of Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, Inyo or Mono counties, contact the Orange County Regional Poison Center at (800) 544-4404.

San Diego residents in the 619 area code may call the San Diego Poison Center at 543-6000; from northern parts of the county or Imperial, residents may call (800) 876-4766.

Getting rid of unused poisons, garden pesticides, solvents, oil-based paints and automotive fluids can be harder. But they should not be dumped into toilets, drains, sewers or soil because they can seep into the water supply and pollute it.

Recycling Hot Line

Check with the California Waste Management Board’s recycling hot line--(800) 553-2962--for possible places to recycle or dispose of small quantities of motor oil or pesticides. They also can tell where to recycle aluminum, glass, newspapers, cardboard and plastics.

City or county sanitation or waste management offices also can advise if they have programs to dispose of or recycle hazardous household waste; several Southern California cities have monthly roundups at school parking lots.

Los Angeles’ Public Works Dept. recently began such a program, which runs every 30 or 45 days. Call (213) 74-WASTE for information.

Orange County has a similar program. For information, call the Orange County Hazardous Material Program Office (714) 744-0516. In San Diego, call county offices at (619) 236-2222 or (619) 235-0281.

If you’re planning to take a product to such an event, be sure it is properly identified. Officials at landfills will not take substances unless they know what they are.

In January, Los Angeles began a pilot program of home pickups in Council District 1 (represented by Councilwoman Gloria Molina) and District 14 (represented by Councilman Richard Alatorre). Those in either district may call 74-WASTE to set up an appointment to have products collected.