ORLANDO, Fla. — They’re gummy and vibrant, like candy. And when ingested, single-load laundry-detergent packets are sending kids to emergency rooms across the nation.
In Florida, newly released data show 252 children age 5 and younger became ill this year through July after exposure to laundry detergent packets, according to the state poison control centers.
Nationwide, poison control centers have recorded thousands of incidents in which children 5 and younger were exposed to the gelatinous pouches of cleaning chemicals during the same time period.
The data illustrate the reason for growing concern in public-safety circles about the toxicity and marketing of the trendy detergent packets, which may have been responsible for what officials confirmed would be the nation’s first reported death linked to the product.
Even before a 7-month-old swallowed a laundry packet at a Kissimmee women’s shelter, federal officials and industry leaders agreed to draw up voluntary safety standards for the increasingly popular laundry innovation.
“The ingredients are poisonous — and we don’t use that term lightly,” said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission of the single-load liquid-detergent packets. “We are not taking a soft approach because we are dealing with a very tragic situation.”
It will take weeks before medical examiners confirm whether the detergent caused the Kissimmee infant’s death.
Put on pressure
But officials are putting pressure on manufacturers to act swiftly.
“We want to see this industry show leadership with a voluntary consensus for safety standards,” Wolfson said.
The American Cleaning Institute — a trade organization representing the cleaning-product industry — in June launched a safety campaign to focus attention on the dangers the products present to children.
The organization has developed educational materials and a set of safety reminders for parents.
Wolfson noted that parents take precautions in the kitchen because it’s home to many cleaning products, but sometimes the laundry room doesn’t get the same scrutiny.
Many exposures occurred when parents were doing the laundry with children in the same room. A distraction that takes Mom or Dad away creates an opportunity for a youngster to grab the toxic product.
“The rationale is that this is a newer laundry innovation and it’s so easy for everyone to be on autopilot and not think about the product that they are holding in their hands,” said ACI spokeswoman Nancy Bock.
Officials have not identified which ingredient is responsible for the illnesses, though Procter & Gamble warns that one — alcohol ethoxylates, common in laundry detergent — can cause gastrointestinal and respiratory irritation if ingested, according to the Tide Pods material safety data sheet.
But researchers are unclear about what chemicals inside the packets are making kids so sick, and the industry considers details about its products to be trade secrets.
“Laundry detergent is generally soap” that typically results in an upset stomach, said Wendy Stephan, vice president of education at the Miami poison-control center. “The problem with the packets is we don’t know specific ingredients might be making it more toxic.
Between January and July of this year, Florida’s three state poison-control centers received 273 calls — 252 of which were kids 5 and younger — stemming from the detergent packets. About half of those cases required a trip to the emergency room. Officials said 25 people were admitted to the hospital overnight.
The Tampa poison-control center covers a 16-county area that includes Orlando. In that region alone, staffers received 94 calls, 84 of which involved children 5 and younger.
Bock said the industry had been working on a response for months but had its first conference call with the federal government four days after the Kissimmee infant, Michael Williams, died.
“We were very interested in watching those numbers with the intent of doing everything humanly possible to get those numbers down,” she said. “Our focus is on prevention.”
That means making the tubs containing the packets opaque and putting warning labels on them — something Procter & Gamble has done for Tide Pods.
The industry is going a step further by creating a new logo warning parents to keep the packets out of reach of children and to avoid squeezing the packets, which can rupture easily.
These steps are a good start but the effort is moving too slowly, said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist with the Consumers Union, the foundation arm of Consumer Reports.
“We clearly haven’t done enough, and the death is only the tip of the iceberg of a problem that has not been addressed,” Rangan said. “The severity of its toxicity seems to be in some cases unique to this product category.”
Experts said the illnesses in children coincided with the product’s introduction to the market in 2012.
“The manufacturers aren’t doing enough,” said JoAnn Chambers-Emerson, a poison-information specialist at the Tampa poison-control center. “They need to make (detergent packets) less cute.”