Poisons centre to the rescue

Do not store chemicals in soft drink bottles, do not leave nicotine chewing gum near children, and do not give your child ant-killer if they have just eaten ants.

These are some of the tips from the Dunedin-based National Poisons Centre, which receives about 35,000 calls, and thousands more internet inquiries, each year.

But ant-killer?

"Yes," said office manager Lucy Shieffelbien. Staff once received a call from a mother who was so concerned about "ants jiggling inside" her child, she fed them ant-killer.

Cases involving children made up fewer than half of all phone inquiries, with those younger than 3 often getting into household products such as air fresheners, detergents and rat poison.

Children over the age of 3, who tended to be better climbers, were often the subject of calls involving therapeutic agents often found in medicine cupboards, such as anti-inflammatories, antihistamines, homeopathic remedies and oral contraceptives.

Other common concerns included silica gel, unidentified mushrooms, bubble blowing mixture, paracetamol and black nightshade.

New Zealand health authorities were alerted following a spike in calls concerning a potentially harmful substance or product.

A new toilet freshener, which looked like a lolly once it had been applied to the toilet bowl, sparked a flurry of calls as it presented a choking hazard to young children.

The manufacturer was notified and the product's labelling changed.

Public health officials in Dunedin were also notified when a counterfeit health product appeared in a city discount store.

"The product was non-compliant, and therefore potentially quite dangerous, because if you don't know what's in it and you accidentally ingest it you could be in trouble," Poisons Centre director Dr Wayne Temple said.

Other recent spikes included children eating nicotine chewing gum and lozenges.

"One or two of these sticks for a young child is potentially quite harmful," Dr Temple said.

After last month's Christchurch earthquake, there was an increase in the number of calls where people had accidentally ingested motor vehicle fuel after siphoning petrol.

The Poisons Centre, which was set up in 1964, also helped get removed from sale some items being abused by people, such as a sedating antihistamine, Benzylpiperazine (BZP) and nitrous oxide.

Many household items listed the centre's number and, in return, manufacturers supplied the centre with information on what their products contained.

But for those wanting to protect their child or pets, a simple mantra to remember was: "Out of reach, out of sight".

That applied to child-proof containers, which gave parents a false sense of security.

The containers were designed to slow children down if they tried to open them, rather than stop them completely.

"They can open them. If you made a container that couldn't be opened by children, than most adults couldn't open them," Ms Shieffelbien said.

Neither should people pour chemicals into soft drink bottles for storage.

This had fooled both children and adults alike.

Dr Temple said the centre received calls concerning methamphetamine.

The "increasing number of children" who were potentially exposed to chemicals used in its manufacture was a concern.

"In a 'P' house, you have drugs around the place, toxic chemicals which they [the P manufacturers] throw out, glassware, needles, firearms, undesirable people visiting, and guard dogs ... not a good environment for kids."

One drug-related case involved a kindergarten, where children found methadone in the pockets of an old coat hanging behind a door.

"You just have to be aware," he said.

People also had to be aware of what was growing in their garden.

Ringing up and saying the plant their child had just ingested for afternoon tea "has leaves and red berries doesn't really help us", Ms Shieffelbien said.

"We need to make a positive identification. It is important people know what is in their garden, but teach children to look but don't touch.

"Swan plants may be poisonous, but they are a great educational tool."

Landcare Research produced a guide on plants that should not be grown at early childhood centres such as fox glove, hemlock, lily of the valley, tutu, yew and potatoes.

The centre also had to deal with high school pupils and their "dares" - such as snorting paracetamol.

The centre had a good relationship with telecommunications companies, and any malicious calls could result in a person's number being cancelled.

While inducing vomiting used be to standard practice for people who had ingested something disagreeable, that was no longer the case.

Activated charcoal was now preferred because it bound to poisons and prevented absorption.

About 75% of calls involving children could be dealt with over the phone.

In the time it took a parent to "strap their child into a car seat, they could have called us", while relieving pressure on the healthcare system, she said.

However, if the affected person was unconscious or having difficulty breathing, then ring 111, she said.

Those concerned their child may have ingested something should know, if possible, what the child had eaten, how much they had taken and, if possible, the weight of their child.


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