Poison Prevention and Poison Treatment at Home

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

| July/August 1980

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.

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