Poison Prevention and Poison Treatment at Home

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Dr. Tom Ferguson wrote the Medical Self Care column in this magazine in the early 1980s.
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There's more to poison prevention than a scary label and a cork stopper.

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

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

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
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

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

[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.

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

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.”