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Laundry pods have made headlines in recent years because some children and dementia patients have mistaken the brightly colored packets for candy and eaten them. At least eight deaths have been linked to these accidental ingestions.
Now, some teenagers are posting videos of themselves putting these pods into their mouths—in some cases biting into them—as part of an online dare called the “Tide Pod Challenge.”
"We've seen a large spike in single-load laundry packet exposures among teenagers since these videos have been uploaded, ” says Stephen Kaminski, executive director of the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Poison control centers around the country logged 39 cases of intentional laundry pod "exposures" among 13-19 year-olds in the first two weeks of this year, according to the association. That’s as many cases as were logged in all of 2016, and almost as many as were logged in all of 2017.
“The intentional misuse of these products poses a real threat to the health of individuals," Kaminski says.
Google says it is actively removing the pod challenge videos from YouTube, and that its community guidelines prohibit content that’s intended to encourage dangerous activities with an inherent risk of physical harm.
Tide, meantime, recruited New England Patriots tight-end Rob Gronkowski to produce a public safety video warning people off of the challenge.
Consumer Reports has called on manufacturers to make the pods safer, including by making them look less candylike. We have also advised households with children younger than 6 or with anyone who has a cognitive impairment, to steer clear of them. Given how deadly the pods can be when ingested, we are very concerned that anyone would bite into one on purpose.
What's in a Laundry Pod?
While the exact blend of ingredients in any given laundry pod is proprietary (and may differ from one brand to the next), we know that they generally consist of ethanol, hydrogen peroxide, and what chemists call “long-chain polymers” but what the rest of us know as soap.
This mix of chemicals is great at cleaning dirt, grime, and food stains off of your clothing. But it’s not meant to be eaten.
In their laundry-pod concentration, these three ingredients alone (never mind what else is in there that we don’t know about) have the power to burn through the lining of your mouth and stomach.
The film that encases this packet of highly concentrated (and, when ingested, very toxic) detergent is thin and specifically designed to dissolve in water. That water is supposed to come from your washing machine, but it can also come from your mouth: According to Don Huber, Consumer Reports’ director of product safety, both your saliva (which is made up of water and enzymes) and gastric juices can break that film down in a matter of seconds.
“You would have to regurgitate the ball almost immediately to avoid injury,” Huber says. “And given the physical size of the pod, it’s not something you can just vomit up easily and have it remain intact.”
What Happens When You Ingest One?
When the film dissolves and the detergent is released, the ethanol, peroxide, and polymers can burn—and not just a little. Toxicologists describe these burns as “caustic,” meaning they can literally eat away at the tissue that makes up your gums and inner cheeks. The same will happen to your esophagus, stomach, and other parts of your gastrointestinal tract as the ingredients make their way through your digestive system.
The intense discomfort of this internal destruction is likely to induce a lot of vomiting. So much that you run the risk of aspirating that vomit, meaning you could literally breathe it into your lungs.
It will also cause severe (the term here is “explosive”) diarrhea. Stool softener—the medication they give people who have trouble going to the bathroom—is also made up of long-chain polymers. Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser, says ingesting a single laundry pod would be “something like the equivalent of taking a whole bottle of stool softeners.”
How, Exactly, Does It Kill You?
Without medical attention, your lungs may start to fill with fluid, which will in turn make it very difficult for you to breathe and eventually send you into respiratory arrest.
At the same time, the portions of the laundry pod that have made their way into your stomach and GI tract can migrate into your bloodstream, vital organs, and central nervous system, including your brain. From there, it can be a short path to seizures, coma, and eventually death.
There is no hard and fast rule for how quickly this process will run its course, but Gary A. Smith, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, says that such deaths tend to be relatively quick.
“It’s a direct toxic effect on the central nervous system,” he says. “This is not a typical product. This is a highly toxic product.” Most of the people who died from accidentally ingesting laundry pods died within hours to days.
Procter & Gamble, the maker of leading brand laundry pods, including the Tide Pods, says its product should be used only to clean clothes and should never be ingested, even as a joke.
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