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Sunday, 14 August 2016

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Is your family at risk of household poisoning?

Toxic exposures to cleaning agents are increasingly the cause of hospital admissions :

Those detergents to keep your dishes and sink sparkling, and even the fragrance you use may seem reasonably safe according to the labels. Yet, hidden inside them are toxic chemicals that can cause acute or long term health impacts, warn health experts, who say, exposure to such toxic chemicals are increasingly sending people to hospital.

Take a look at some recent findings from US Poison Centres:

In 2000, cleaning products were responsible for as many as ten percent of all toxic exposures reported to the US Poison Control Centres., accounting for 206,636 calls. Of these, 120,434 exposures involved children under six, who swallowed spilled cleaners left open and within their reach inside the home.

In poison statistics cited in the National Data 2014 in the US , fifty five Poison Centres provided telephone guidance for nearly 2.2 million human poison exposures. That accounted for 6.7 poison exposures per 1,000 population and 42.6 poison exposures in children younger than six years per 1,000 children.

The US Poison Centres also noted that one poison exposure was reported to their call centres every fifteen seconds!

While young children (younger than 6 years) comprise a disproportionate percentage of the cases, poisoning affects ALL age groups, from infants to seniors. Peak poisoning frequency occurs in one and two year olds, but poisonings in teens and adults are more serious. Notice that the greater proportion of males in poison exposures occurring in children younger than 13 switches to a female predominance in teens and adults, the report said.


Dr Waruna Gunethileke

In Sri Lanka, the scenario is just as scary due to most families now using detergents for cleaning households, and more men and women are able to afford cleansing creams, aftershave lotions and perfumes for a better grooming. Few or none realize that they contain toxic substances which could lead to dangerous health impacts on the user and the family as a whole. After all , as long as they can do what they claim i.e. clean, why bother to look beyond?

The Sunday Observer spoke to the Head of the National Poisons Information Centre, Dr Waruna Gunethileke for some insights into these hidden dangers.

Excerpts...

Is household poisoning from cleaning detergents , fragrances, and other household items on the increase? Why?

A. Compared to a couple of decades ago, the answer is Yes. To cite some figures on emergency calls received at our call centre last year ( 2015) of household poisoning , we had 283 such cases. We also had 228 calls regarding swallowing of medicinal drugs ( either the wrong drugs or an overdose.) The latter is now a growing problem in the country as most drugs given in government hospitals are a month supply .

This is a huge amount of tablets which to make matters worse is packed in small envelopes which can be torn easily . So it is important they are kept away from small children especially those between the ages of 2-4 years.

Is it a new trend?

A To answer that let's go back to the time of our ancestors. They simply used used lime ( dehi) and ash ( alu,) later graduating to soap and water to clean their dishes, pots and pans. Today, most modern households have dish washers, ovens that need to be cleaned regularly, and cleaning agents that can do this work efficiently and quickly because time is an important consideration. So, those who can or even cannot afford them, allocate a part of their budget for purchasing the latest detergent in the market based on their claims.

How toxic are these cleaning agents?

A. It varies from the type of detergent used. But, they all have toxic substances. Take bleach and disinfectant for example. They contain ingredients with high acute toxicity. These include chlorine bleach, ammonia and acids. In addition there are petroleum products like keresone oil and diesal, which have extremely dangerous health impacts.

Can these chemicals or detergents degrade over time?

A. Yes, with long lasting effects as it affects the environment.

What are the adverse health impacts ?

A. Long term effects vary with the type of health hazard . Some cause acute or immediate hazards such as skin or respiratory irritation, watery eyes, or even chemical burns. Others are associated with chronic or long term effects, like cancer.

Corrosive chemicals can cause severe burns to eyes and skin on touch, and if ingested, affect the throat and oesophogas, as well. Ingredients with high toxicity include chloride bleach and ammonia which produce fumes highly irritant to eyes, nose , throat and lungs .

Who is most at risk from these toxic household chemicals?

A. Asthma patients, heart and lung patients, and any person with compromised respiratory problems.

What about persons with allergies?

A. Persons with allergies are also vulnerable to, especially, fragrances that are added to many cleaners, notably, laundry detergents and fabric softeners may cause respiratory irritation, headaches and watery eyes to sensitive persons.

Due to the dengue menace there is an increasing use of mosquito coils and sprays. Have there been increasing reports and calls to your office with regard to adverse health impacts?

A. I am glad you mention this, as we have had several calls where people have complained of breathing difficulties and various allergies and skin irritation from exposure to mosquito coils and more recently to mosquito sprays.

What is the reason?

A. It is probably because many people who can't afford to buy mosquito sprays are now purchasing them at discounted prices in the Pettah .

Our advice is to use them safely. Remember they contain toxic chemicals are are harmful for your health.

What about rigifoam boxes which children and adults pack their snacks or even meals in?

A. We have scientific evidence to prove that they carry very dangerous health hazards as they too contain chemicals that leach into the food.

These petroleum based products contain polystyrene, which contain two chemicals, Styrene and Benzene. These chemicals interact with warm food, drinks (all types - fruit and fizzy drinks included), and acid food like pineapple, pickle and lime and have adverse effects on one's health.

How?

A. When Polystyrene comes into contact with any of the foods mentioned, it leaches the two toxic chemicals, which are fat soluble, into the food. They can easily leach into the butter used in a sandwich or oil used to fry a roll.Always try to avoid using these boxes for your food . If you must buy them , purchase only those that are of food grade quality. That applies to lunch sheets as well.

What are the health impacts of using rigifoam boxes to pack your lunch?

A. As I said these petroleum based products contain polystrene which contains Styrene and Benzene. Styrene is carcinogenic (cancer causing) and has a neurotoxin (affecting the nerves) effect. It dissolves the fat tissues and causes chromosome damage. Benzene is also carcinogenic. However, its toxic effects depend on the level of exposure to it.

The important thing to remember is all plastics and polythene are petroleum based products, which contain these two deadly toxins. The impact they have on one's health in the short term or long term, will as I mentioned earlier, depend on the level of exposure and the duration of such exposure.

Your advice regarding household poisoning in general?

A. Reduce detergents use for cleaning, as well as other substances containing chemicals that can trigger allergies and cause health risks to people in the house. And, never leave open detergents within reach of children .

Also, make sure that cupboards containing poisons such as, pesticide and insecticides are locked, and your tablets are kept inside pill boxes away from the reach of children.

Household injuries have become very common and are among the leading cause for admission to hospital, especially children. Swallowing seeds from rambuttans and large gauvas and even mango and mangosteen seeds are very common. So, watch your child when he or she eats these fruits. Don't let them put them up into their nose or choke on them.

Watch your child at play in the house as well, and remove chairs that have broken legs which could be used to climb or sit on. Make your bathrooms safe. Put disposable razers and used creams in plastic bags and dispose of them carefully.

Mothers should keep their sewing boxes away from children as needles and even thimbles can find their way into small noses. Moth ball poisoning is also common in children between two to 14 years today.

Follow these golden rules and ensure your family has a safe school vacation.

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