Poison Prevention and Poison Treatment at Home

Dr. Tom Ferguson discusses steps adults can take to manage poison prevention and poison treatment at home.

Medical Self Care - Tom Ferguson

Dr. Tom Ferguson wrote the Medical Self Care column in this magazine in the early 1980s.


Content Tools

A substantial proportion of all accidents involving children also involve poisons. But—according to the National Poison Control Network—poison treatment can be handled at home in 85% of cases if the adults who are present just remain calm and understand a few simple procedures.

First, it must be noted that by "poisons" I really mean suspected poisons. Adults often jump to the conclusion that children have been poisoned if the youngsters are seen eating anything other than recognizable food. The typical response in such a case is to rush the child to an emergency room, where health workers will usually induce vomiting. However, the suspect substance sometimes turns out to be harmless ... and the fee for treatment becomes part of the estimated $30 million spent each year on unnecessary emergency room visits. On the other hand, though, adults sometimes don't recognize when poison prevention is called for. They aren't concerned when tots chew on painted toys, houseplants, or newspapers, yet some seemingly harmless items can do serious damage!

Fatal Irony

Dr. Richard Moriarty (who was, at the time, a pediatric resident at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) once witnessed the death of a three-year-old girl ... the result of complications during treatment for poisoning. It was later discovered that the pills the girl had taken were not toxic, and that the emergency room staff had not bothered to research the substance before administering treatment.

The tragedy led Moriarty to establish a poison control center in a converted bathroom at Children's Hospital. Today, what started as a one-room office has expanded to become the headquarters of the National Poison Control Network (NPCN) ... and it receives more than 200 calls a day! (Before Moriarty began his work, an average of three Pittsburgh—area children under five years of age died from accidental poisonings every year. But—since the establishment of the center—no child of this age group has died of poisoning in Pittsburgh!)

Mr. Yuk

Since not every poison can be locked away (some houseplants, for example, are quite toxic), Moriarty encouraged parents to place stickers—illustrated with the traditional "poison" symbol of skull and crossbones—on all dangerous items. Frequently, though, the warnings weren't heeded. So the doctor asked preschoolers how they felt about the skull and crossbones, and discovered that small fry are attracted to the symbol... because pirate cartoons and the like have led them to associate it with having fun.

Moriarty then developed a symbol that did turn youngsters off: a scowling, phosphorescent green face sticking out its tongue. One little girl looked at the face and said, "That's yukky!" So the symbol was christened Mr. Yuk, and—since 1972—more than 25 million Mr. Yuk stickers have been distributed in the Pittsburgh area alone.

Preventive Measures You Can Take

[1] Label all household poisons with Mr. Yuk stickers (available through order forms contained in the Poison Safeguard Kit described below). Tell your children what you're doing and why you're doing it. Common dangerous household poisons include aspirin and other medications, laundry detergents and bleaches, cleaning agents, shampoos and shaving cream, insecticides, and suntan lotion.

[2] Supervise your children closely right before mealtime. A substantial proportion of accidental poisonings occur when youngsters are hungry.

[3] Post the telephone number of the nearest Poison Control Center beside your phone. Local centers are usually listed inside the cover or in the white pages of the phone book. If you don't find such a listing, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the National Poison Control Network and ask for the number of the center closest to you. Do it now . . before you actually need assistance.

[4] Buy a Poison Antidote Slideguide and/or a Poison Safeguard Kit. The Slideguide is an uncomplicated cardboard wheel. You simply turn a disk to the code number assigned to a given poison, and a home antidote or other instructions appear in a window marked "Procedures."

The Poison Safeguard Kit was developed in conjunction with Dr. Moriarty's National Poison Control Network. It contains order forms for Mr. Yuk stickers, the telephone numbers of every Poison Control Center in the United States, poison education information, two bottles of syrup of ipecac to induce vomiting, and a bottle of activated charcoal (which is a useful antidote in many instances). 

If Poisoning Occurs...

Don't panic and DO NOT immediately reach for the ipecac. Treatment may not be necessary, or ipecac may be the wrong substance to use.

First and foremost, call your local Poison Control Center. Identify the suspected poison to the staff person and wait for instructions. (Let the adviser know whether you have ipecac and/or activated charcoal on hand, but don't use either unless instructed to do so.)

If you're told to use ipecac, give one tablespoon, followed by a tall glass (8-16 ounces) of any fluid except milk. Vomiting should take place in about 15 minutes. If it has not occurred within about 20 minutes, give another tablespoon of ipecac ... but no more.

Ipecac should not be administered at home if the victim is less than one year old ... if the poison is a corrosive: lye, drain or oven cleaner, or dish washing detergent; if the poison is a petroleum product: kerosene, gasoline, paint thinner, or furniture polish  or if the victim is either unconscious or convulsing.

Such serious situations usually warrant a speedy trip to the nearest emergency room, but do call the Poison Control Center first.

Do It Now

Poison-proofing your home should take no more than an hour or two. If you have young children, right now is the time to:

[a] Lock poisons away in a secure place.

[b] Use the Mr. Yuk stickers on substances that can't be locked away.

[c] Send away for your Poison Safeguard Kit.

[d] Post near your telephone the number of the closest Poison Control Center.  

In 1976, Tom Ferguson—then a fourth-year medical student at Yale—launched a magazine called Medical Self-Care... which he hoped would serve as "a Whole Earth Catalog of the best medical books, tools, and resources."  

Tom spoke of his plans for the publication and of his conviction that self-care could raise the general level of health in this country and lower our inflated levels of medical spending in a MOTHER EARTH NEWS interview, and left no doubt that he would work toward making those "dreams"come true. 

Well, Tom Ferguson is Doctor Ferguson now, and the medical self-care "movement" — as well as Tom's magazine — has flourished. People are beginning to assume more responsibility for their own well-being and are eager for information that will help them take better care of their bodies. 

So in an effort to provide just such very necessary data, MOTHER EARTH NEWS' offers as a regular feature a piece by Tom Ferguson, M.D., entitled (what else?) "Medical Self-Care."