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How do you protect your children from household poisons?

Selina Esteves and her three-and-a-half-year-old son Hudson are photographed in their Toronto home on May 28, 2012, as part of an awareness campaign for Safe Kids Canada.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Selina Esteves thought that she knew everything when it came to protecting her children from danger.

The Toronto mother works at the Hospital for Sick Children and is constantly surrounded by messages about the importance of safety.

But she received a major jolt about four months ago when her toddler drank two bottles of liquid medication when he should have been in bed sleeping. While Ms. Esteves was downstairs helping her older son with homework, Hudson, 3, got out of bed, went to the bathroom and dragged a stool to the medicine cabinet. He found two bottles of liquid children's medication, removed the child-resistant caps and drank the contents of both.

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After a frantic call to 911 and a trip to the hospital, it turned out that Hudson would be okay. But the ordeal was a terrifying wake-up call, Ms. Esteves said.

Even the most vigilant parents probably do not realize the hidden hazards in their homes. "I thought I was being really careful and that I had done what I should be doing," Ms. Esteves said. "If somebody like me can screw up, then other parents are not doing their due diligence in ensuring their children are safe."

Her warning comes as a survey reveals that the majority of Canadian parents are making mistakes that could put their children in similarly dangerous situations. The survey, conducted on behalf of Safe Kids Canada, a national advocacy organization, found that while nearly all parents say it's important to lock up medications and household cleaners, many aren't following through.

About half of parents say they store medication in a medicine cabinet, while 60 per cent keep cleaning products under the sink.

The findings are surprising because of the very real risk of children ingesting potentially toxic medications or cleaning products, in addition to other common household items, said Margaret Thompson, medical director of the Ontario Poison Centre. "If it's available, a child will get into it," she said.

But one of the biggest mistakes parents make may come as a surprise: referring to medication as candy. Many children's medications are designed to have a pleasing taste, but Dr. Thompson said it's a major error to refer to them as candy, as it could unwittingly entice children.

Parents must educate their children that even if medication tastes good, it's only to help them feel better and that they should not have any more than what they are given.

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At the same time, many parents assume that, if all else fails, child-resistant caps will keep their children from ingesting prescription and non-prescription drugs.

Ms. Esteves's story proves that this isn't the case. Her son was able to open two bottles of medication with child-resistant caps.

Dr. Thompson has also heard of cases in which children have bitten the bottoms off containers with child-resistant caps.

And because children are naturally curious, they are likely to try to ingest items that make little sense to an adult, such as windshield-washer fluid, antifreeze or perfume, which are often made with alcohol. Dr. Thompson has even heard of children eating an entire tube of toothpaste.

"I think parents overestimate the ability of those child-resistant caps to keep their kid out of the medication," said Pamela Fuselli, executive director of Safe Kids Canada. "They're not child-proof; they're child-resistant."

There are no national statistics documenting how many children are poisoned each year. That is part of the problem: It's difficult to quantify the true extent of the problem and to determine where prevention efforts should be aimed, Ms. Fuselli said.

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The most common poisonings are linked to medication and household cleaners.

But Ms. Fuselli also highlighted another deadly substance: carbon monoxide. Everyone is at risk from this colourless, odourless gas and it's important to install carbon-monoxide detectors on each floor of the house, she said.

Safe Kids Canada compiled information from poison-control centres across the country and determined that seven children die each year and nearly 1,700 are admitted to hospital as a result of poisonings.

"There's still a lot of work to do," Ms. Fuselli said.

So what can parents do?

Keep all medications and vitamins in a locked container and make sure it and the key are out of the sight of children.

Put household cleaners and other items, including detergent, windshield-washer fluid, nail-polish remover and pesticides, in locked cupboards or bins, or use a child-safety latch.

Ensure that medications are kept in their original containers as the product information will be needed in case of ingestion by a child.

Don't refer to medication as candy.

Call the poison-control centre if you think your child may have ingested a potentially hazardous substance.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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