Any chemical can be poisonous, depending upon how much is eaten, inhaled, injected or absorbed. That means many items in our own homes—including cleaning products, pesticides and cosmetics—have the potential to harm us.
Poisoning is the leading cause of death by injury in the United States, killing more than 52,000 people per year—surpassing motor vehicle-related deaths, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Since 1962, the third week of March has been recognized as National Poison Prevention Week to raise awareness of the dangers of unintentional poisoning.
“It’s an opportunity to teach the public what they really need to know about keeping themselves and keeping their kids safe,” said Spencer Greene, M.D., director of medical toxicology and assistant professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. “We are in a time where there is a lot of misinformation out there.”
Greene is the only board-certified medical toxicologist in the city of Houston. He regularly serves Ben Taub Hospital and Texas Children’s Hospital, and responds to calls from many other hospitals in the area. In addition, he is a consulting toxicologist for the Southeast Texas Poison Center.
“Poison centers exist to save lives and to save money,” Greene said. “God forbid, there is an exposure—if there are any life-threatening emergencies, call 911, but if it is not, you should call the poison center. The phones are answered by specialists in poison information— typically nurses and pharmacists. They can field these phone calls to tell you what is dangerous and what is not.”
Established in 1959, theSoutheast Texas Poison Center (SETPC), housed at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, was the first poison center in the state. Today, there are six poison centers across Texas, but calls from Houston are directed to SETPC.
“We get calls for overdoses, suicides, doubling up on medications, drinking or ingesting an unknown substance,” said Jean Cleary, PharmD, director of the center. “Most of the cases we see are accidental poisonings with kids. Our best customers are under the age of two. … The majority of our calls are for kids eating household cleaning products.”
To avoid exposing children to dangerous substances, Greene recommends thinking like a kid.
“Get on the floor,” Greene said. “What is accessible and attractive to a kid? If you open up the lower cabinets … are there cleaning agents or pesticides that may be enticing to a child?”
Other common accidents involve ingesting mystery fluids from mislabeled or unlabeled containers.
“Always, always, always keep things in the original packaging,” Greene said. “About once a week I get a call about someone drinking a cleaning agent out of a Gatorade bottle to make it more portable. Do you know what happens when you put cleaning products in a Gatorade bottle? Someone will think it is okay to drink.”
Cleary said that active listening is key when taking a call at the center.
“I’ve been here for 30 years and you never really get used to it,” she said. “You need to know what kind of questions to ask and how to ask those questions and you need to be an extremely good listener. What they are telling you and what they are really saying may not be the same thing.”
Once Cleary and her team of 12 at the call center have accurately identified what a caller has ingested, they can offer help.
“With the exception of severe overdoses and highly toxic exposures—those are sent to theemergency room—we can answer callers’ questions immediately, give general first aid,” Cleary said. “About 90 percent of cases just require drinking fluid and monitoring for symptoms.”
Greene helps the center with particularly difficult cases, including snake bites.
“You learn by doing this how to ask the right questions so you can get an idea of what is going on without actually seeing the patient— what they smell, feel and hear,” Greene said.
For patients who need to be seen in person, a variety of treatment options are available depending on the toxin to which they have been exposed.
“We generally do blood tests on patients unless we know what they took and we know that it is not toxic. On rare occasions, we give patients charcoal,” Greene said.
Activated charcoal, an emergency decontaminant, helps absorb toxins in the gastrointestinal tract.
“We do not pump stomachs anymore,” Greene added. “We have known since the late ’80s that it doesn’t work and that it is harmful.”
Greene and Cleary urge people who believe they have been exposed to toxins to call the poison center.
“People need to know to call the poison center when there is an exposure that is not an immediate life threat,” Greene said. “A lot of times the patient will be able to stay home—the call center can do things to help the patient and we can prevent them from doing things that are more harmful.”
Southeast Texas Poison Center
The toll-free number for the call center, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is 800-222-1222.