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The Globe and Mail

Detergent pods have poison-control world on edge

Children have experienced vomiting and respiratory problems after biting into pods.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

They're colourful, shiny and look suspiciously like candy. But if children take a bite, they could end up in the hospital.

Detergent pods are one of the newest cleaning products to hit the market. They eliminate the need to pour liquid or powder cleaners into the washing machine by concentrating detergent into a single-dose packet.

The safety of these pods, however, has come into question in recent weeks, as reports emerge of numerous poisonings among children in the United States. Reports suggest more than 1,000 children have been harmed by detergent pods in that country over the past few months.

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At least several dozen Canadian children have been poisoned by detergent pods, likely after putting them in their mouths.

But the absence of a comprehensive national poison reporting database in Canada means no one, including manufacturers, poison control experts or government officials, is aware of the extent of the issue.

"It's problematic," said Martin Laliberté, president of the Canadian Association of Poison Control Centres.

Health Canada issued a warning Thursday about the potential dangers of detergent pods, but only after The Globe and Mail requested information on the topic.

Laundry detergent pods have put the poison control world on edge because the pods seem to have strong toxic effects if eaten by children, although it's unclear why.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers has received reports of 15- and 17-month-old infants who had to be put on a ventilator after biting into a detergent pod.

Other problems include eye irritation (caused by the product squirting into the eyes after being bitten), vomiting, wheezing and other respiratory problems. No deaths have been reported.

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"Over the years we've learned that most of the time when children are exposed to detergent, they either have no symptoms or a little bit of stomach upset," Dr. Laliberté said. "What's actually interesting and worrisome about [detergent] pods, they seem associated with a higher risk of adverse events."

Dr. Laliberté has discovered that Alberta and British Columbia each have received 10 to 15 reports of poisonings related to single-dose laundry packets. Margaret Thompson, medical director of the Ontario Poison Centre, said the agency advises parents who call about detergent pods to take exposed children to the emergency room. Health Canada said that so far, it knows of 21 incidents of detergent pod poisonings reported to provincial centres. An additional two Canadian poisonings were reported directly to Health Canada.

In response to the concerns in the United States, Procter & Gamble, maker of Tide detergent pods, one of the most popular types on the market, pledged to change the packaging in that country to make it harder for children to ingest the pods.

Detergent manufacturers say they are unaware of any poisoning reports in Canada related to their products.

Procter & Gamble declined to answer questions, except to say it has received no reports of poisonings here and will introduce a double-latch container lid next month to help prevent children from ingesting pods.

Kathryn Corbally, director of corporate affairs at Sun Products Corp., said the company has had no reports of detergent pod poisonings and is also considering packaging changes.

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Shannon Coombs, president of the Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association, a trade group that represents many major detergent makers, said no reports of problems with laundry pods has come to her attention.

Canada lacks a robust national centre that collects poisoning statistics and helps alert officials to new threats as they emerge. Provincial agencies receive poisoning reports, but the type of information collected can vary between centres.

Unlike its U.S. counterpart, the Canadian Association of Poison Control Centres is a small organization that doesn't have the funds or the mandate to require more stringent collection of information on poisoning incidents across the country.

To find out how many detergent pod poisonings have occurred in Canada, Dr. Laliberté had to call each provincial poison control centre individually.

He is still awaiting responses from many of them.

"In order to do poison prevention … [you] have to have an idea what's going on," Dr. Laliberté said. "Currently it's very difficult, if not impossible."

Pamela Fuselli, executive director of Safe Kids Canada, advises parents to keep detergent pods, as well as all other household cleaners, medications and automotive products such as windshield washer fluid, locked up and out of reach of children.

As Ms. Fuselli says, "There may not be a level of awareness that a cleaning product can be poisonous, but certainly most of the cleaning products on the market definitely are worthy of being careful and making sure that they're not reachable by kids."

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