Rise in Kids Eating Laundry Detergent "Pods" That Look Like Candy

Tide detergent pods sitting next to a bag of orange candy. Sweet-smelling and colorful, but toxic, single-use laundry detergent packs or “pods” are causing a rising rate of poisoning in kids who confuse them for candy. In the past 72 hours alone, nine childhood poisonings of toddlers (typical age 23 months) have been reported to the California Poison Control System (CPCS).

Richard Geller, MD, MPH—Medical Director, California Poison Control System, Children’s Hospital, Madera—reports that accidental poisonings linked to detergent pods are becoming increasingly frequent, with 82 cases in California through the end of May. Nationally, at least 250 cases have been reported to poison control centers this year, most of them since March when the products began to hit grocery store shelves.

All of the latest childhood poisonings required emergency evaluation and treatment, with six of them linked to Tide Pods, two to Purex Ultra Packs, and one to All Mighty Paks. So far, no deaths have been reported, but nationally, a number of kids have required hospitalization—sometimes on ventilators—for several days after eating detergent pods.

All of those kids are now out of the hospital, with no long-term health problems or complications reported. Typically their symptoms cleared up in one week or less. Other pod-poisoning cases were successfully treated at home, with the parents following advice from poison control centers, or the kids were evaluated and treated in emergency rooms without the need for a hospital stay.

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“Poison control centers are seeing more pediatric poisonings from laundry detergent this year, and the children exposed are sicker than those ingesting the older powdered products,” Dr. Geller says. “The pods are brightly colored and resemble candy packaging, making them more attractive to kids than a box of powder.”  

Dr. Geller’s research found that the two most common single-dose detergent brands that children are getting into are Tide Pods Detergent and Purex Ultra Packs. Many other brands are marketed, and all should be considered hazardous to kids, he emphasizes. 

"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," Julie Weber, director of the Missouri Poison Control Center in St. Louis, told MSNBC.

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More Dangerous than Standard Detergent

Detergent pods are typically one-inch cubes used in a washing machine instead of powdered detergent. And if they’re ingested, they can cause more severe symptoms than traditional detergent, possibly because the highly concentrated products have the equivalent of a full cup of laundry soap or have different effects on the body.

In one scary case, a 17-month-old Philadelphia boy climbed on a dresser and popped a detergent pod in his mouth. He vomited, grew drowsy, and began coughing, according to MSNBC. The toddler was hospitalized for a week and spent one day on a ventilator but is now fine.

“We look at these pods as being clearly more dangerous than the standard detergent,” Kurt Kleinschmidt, a Dallas toxicologist and professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center told MSNBC. In Texas, 71 cases of pod poisoning have been reported in the past few months.

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Symptoms of Laundry Pod Poisoning

Dr. Geller reports that the symptoms of laundry pod poisoning are significantly different from those that result if kids ingest standard laundry soap. Specifically, the four frightening effects of biting into the miniature packets (according to CPCS) are:

  • significant nausea and vomiting
  • respiratory distress, in many cases requiring ventilators temporarily
  • eye injuries occurring as a child bites into the pod and gets the product in his or her eyes
  • metabolic abnormalities—doctors are not sure why, but the pods may be more toxic than standard powder.

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Dozens of Emergency Calls to Poison Centers

“(My daughter) was throwing up, she was crying, she had detergent all the way down her body. It was not good," Georgia mom Jessica Sutton told WSBTV. The little girl had found and bitten into a detergent pod that had fallen off a laundry shelf.

Sutton was one of dozens of parents who have called the Georgia Poison Control Center (GPCS) in recent months. “It's very scary cause they said it could cause the throat, tongue and lips to swell where they can't breathe,” the mom recalls. Fortunately, her daughter quickly recovered within hours, without requiring hospitalization.

The GPCS reports cases in which kids grew drowsy after vomiting and developed temporary fluid buildup in their lungs that impaired breathing.

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Manufacturers Working on Precautions

The good news—some manufacturers of the new detergent pods are working on safer packaging. For example, the maker of Tide Pods is developing a new lid to deter kids from popping the brightly colored packets, Proctor & Gamble announced in May.

Laundry pods are safe when used for the intended purpose—washing clothes—so the key priority to keep them out of the hands of curious kids. Dr. Geller and the CPSC recommend that the detergent pods be kept either in cabinets with childproof locks or on a high shelf away from children.  

Parents may want to consider avoiding using detergent pods when children are small and more apt to “taste” things, adds Dr. Geller. Should a child eat one of the packets, call a poison control center immediately for advice. It’s a smart idea for parents to keep the number of a poison control center near all phones in their home and to store the number on their cell phone.

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