Liquid detergent pods are a convenient way to do laundry without the mess. But these pods are also infamous for causing health issues when they're ingested. Now, new research has discovered a surprising detail: Exposure to these laundry detergent packets has gone up in older children, teens and adults over the past few years.
The study, which was published in the journal Clinical Toxicology, analyzed trends in calls to poison centers across the U.S. The researchers discovered that, in the most recent three years of the study, U.S. poison centers received more than 36,000 calls related to liquid laundry detergent pod exposures, which was an average of one call every 44 minutes.
Most exposures (87%) were in children under the age of 6. However, there were also nine deaths linked with ingesting laundry detergent pods — all of those involving adults, including seven deaths in people older than 70.
The researchers noted that exposures remain "high" in younger kids, but also stressed that "exposures have increased among older children, adolescents and adults." The findings raise a lot of questions about laundry detergent pods and safety around their use. But it also leads to questions about why exposures are going up in older children, teens and adults, who are presumably old enough to know better. Here's the deal.
What's behind the rise of poisonings from laundry detergent pods?
The study didn't explore why exposures went up in older children, teens and adults — it simply found that this is happening. However, experts say there are a few things that are likely behind this.
One is the rise in popularity of laundry detergent packets. "If these products are becoming more common in our communities, then household members of all ages have the potential to be exposed," Dr. Christopher Gaw, senior author of the study and an emergency medicine physician at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's, tells Yahoo Life.
Social media challenges, like the Tide Pod Challenge, are also likely responsible for some of the increase in exposures, especially in teens, Bruce Ruck, managing director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. Dr. Danelle Fisher, pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., agrees. "A lot of times, we're looking at teens who do silly social media challenges or cave to peer pressure," she tells Yahoo Life. "Whether they're looking to get high or what, we expect those teens to know better."
Among older adults, exposure is likely happening in people with dementia, Alzheimer's disease or related cognitive issues, Gaw says. "These adults may mistake laundry detergent packets for food or another household object, leading to inadvertent exposure," he says. "This is another population at risk for laundry detergent packet exposures that we may not typically think about."
Ruck looked at his poison control center's own data and found that most calls around laundry detergent pods were related to children. "The adult calls tend to be mostly accidental," he says. "Meaning, 'I picked up the packet, squeezed it too hard and it got in my eye' or 'I used it in my dishwasher instead of my washing machine and now my food tastes funny after eating on those dishes.'"
Ruck says that "occasionally" calls will involve someone who used a laundry pod to try to complete suicide or older adults with dementia who cut open the packet, put it in their mouth and tasted it by mistake. "But by far, it's still infants and children under age 6," he says.
Why is ingesting laundry detergent pods harmful?
Laundry detergent pods aren't meant to be ingested, Fisher points out. "The chemicals in these are really nasty," she says. "They're meant to clean your clothes, but they'll try to clean the inside of your esophagus and intestines if you ingest them. They will make you sick and can kill you."
Gaw says that a "wide range of effects" can be seen from being exposed to laundry detergent packets, including burns, vomiting and difficulty breathing. And, in some cases, these pods can have deadly consequences.
How to practice laundry pod safety
Fisher says the findings underscore the need to be smart about laundry detergent pod storage, as well as talking to older children about why these shouldn't be abused.
"Even though you can't supervise teens all the time, you can have conversations that are lifesaving," Fisher says. "Teens need to know that something looking cool online does not translate to it being cool in person. They need to think twice about whether something is good for them and safe, and not act right away."
Gaw says that families and caregivers should be aware of potential hazards of laundry detergent packets, "especially if they are taking care of young children or adults with a history of cognitive impairment."
He recommends keeping these products up high, tucked away and out of reach of people who are at risk of abusing them. "Laundry detergent packets should be kept closed, sealed and in their original packaging," he says. And if you're particularly concerned about exposure in your household, he recommends using traditional liquid laundry detergents instead.