Poison Center Pointers: Spring Cleaning

Chris and Carolyn from the Poison Help Line sat down during National Poison Prevention Week to discuss some potential hazards from using cleaning products in your home, including ways both children and adults get poisoned from cleaners, along with ways to prevent these types of poisonings.


Karlee: Poison Center Pointers is brought to you by the Northern New England Poison Center. This podcast is not to replace timely advice or recommendations. If you have an actual poisoning emergency, scenario or question, contact the Northern New England Poison Center by calling 1-800-222-1222, text the word POISON to 85511, or chat online at nnepc.org.


Chris: Welcome to Poison Center Pointers, a podcast presented to you by the Northern New England Poison Center.


Chris: Hello to all our listeners out there, and welcome back to Poison Center Pointers.  My name’s Chris and I have Carolyn here with me.


Carolyn: Hi everybody!

Chris: We don’t have Karlee with us this week, and why is that?

Carolyn: Karlee is on vacation. She’s going to be so sad she missed this podcast, just down in Florida with the warm weather…

Chris: I’m sure she’s just looking at toxic snakes and bugs and all that. I’m sure she’s actually not enjoying the weather. She’s studying up on poisons.

Carolyn laughs

Carolyn: Oh that’s probably true.

Both laugh

Carolyn: We miss you, Karlee! But at least this way any jokes we can make about Karlee instead of me and my age.

Chris laughs

Chris: That’s right! No age jokes…

Carolyn: Just poison information, just the facts.

Chris laughs

Chris: Karlee did choose a good week to take off, it’s a pretty exciting week here.

Carolyn: That’s right, very exciting.

Chris: It’s National Poison Prevention Week!

Carolyn: Wahoo!

Chris: It’s the third week of March every year, from March 20st to 26th this year. It’s a week dedicated to raising awareness about poison centers and the Poison Help hotline. What’s that phone number again?

Carolyn: 1-800-222-1222!

Chris: They want us to plug that.

Both laugh

Chris: So National Poison Prevention Week was started in 1961 by Congress. As I said it’s to raise awareness, reduce unintentional poisonings, and promote poison prevention. We even have a National Poison Prevention Week Council. Each year they hold various virtual events, even an artwork contest. A lot of that is available at AAPCC.org, which stands for American Association of Poison Control Centers.
There is a banner you can click on that will bring up more information. I believe all the virtual events this week are hosted on their Facebook page. Additionally you can find the link from there. 

So it’s National Poison Prevention Week, but it also happens to fall on….

Carolyn: Spring!

Chris: Spring! That’s right! What’s that called again?

Both laugh

Chris: So, it’s a week after daylight saving time…

Carolyn: Above freezing some of the time…

Chris: Yeah some of the time. It got into the 50s last week. It’s after March 21st. What do we like to do this time of year?

Carolyn: Go outside and play!

Chris: Well, yeah…

Carolyn: But inside we do spring cleaning.

Chris: The responsible folk do some spring cleaning.     

Both laugh

Chris: So we figured, to go along with Poison Prevention Week we’ll talk about one of our, um, a topic that we get numerous calls—this is a daily call for us.

Carolyn: Yeah we get calls about cleaners all the time, but we thought you know, it’s spring, spring cleaning, let’s talk some about cleaners in depth.

Chris: Yes, let’s talk about household cleaners and chemicals. I compiled a nice bulleted list…

Carolyn: It’s very nice.

Chris: Yeah it’s very nice.

Both laugh

Chris: …of quite a few different cleaner types categorized by what might use them for. Figured we’d just go through briefly what kind of toxicity we worry about, and go through a few exposure scenarios, how to deal with them, and as always, some helpful prevention tips.

Carolyn: Sounds good!

Chris: Alright. The first cleaner topic…

Carolyn: The first one: oven cleaners and degreasers. Dun dun dun!

Chris laughs

Carolyn: I’m gonna give these a three skull and crossbones on the skull and crossbones scale. That’s a scale I just made up, by the way.

Chris: Sounds scary.

Carolyn: Yeah, it’s top three.

Chris laughs

Carolyn: Oven cleaners and degreasers are corrosive. They can definitely cause burns, so we need to take care of it right away. You definitely want to be careful when using those products.

Chris: Right, so you’ve been using your oven all winter because no one wants to go out and grill, except if you’re a hearty New Englander.

Carolyn: A Mainer!

Both laugh

Chris: New Hampshire and Vermont too, they may still be getting out there. You know you gotta clean out that oven, but those chemicals can be very nasty and corrosive as she said.

Carolyn: What’s the next one, Chris?

Chris: Let’s go with bleach. That’s a heavy hitter. And going along with that I guess we should just say mold and mildew cleaners as well, if you have any buildup from the winter. What are your thoughts?

Carolyn: Well with bleach, it depends on the percentage. And this is probably a good time to say when you do call us make sure make sure you have access, if you can, to the bottle so you can tell us exactly what the product is because all these cleaners, they’re all different. There isn’t just one name brand or one type, even bleach, there’s different percentages. They’re often low, the household cleaners, and those usually can be dealt with at home, but sometimes some cleaners can be more concentrated.

Chris: Right. And that’s what the percentage kind of, indicates. And we worry about the concentrated ones. Concentrated bleach can cause a burn, absolutely, if you get it on your lips, in your mouth…

Carolyn: …eyes…

Chris: Yep, skin, eyes, or you inhale it. It’s going to be very irritating. Generally household bleach is better tolerated.

Carolyn: Thankfully, it tends to do that, because it’s actually a fairly common call, most people have it in their house.

Chris: The chemical in it is called sodium hypochlorite, and you find that in mold and mildew cleaners a lot. So a lot of the same concerns there. Again a lot of variability, but we’re just, kind of going by use, that’s how we’re categorizing them here. But, there is variability in what they contain, but a lot of these contain bleach.

Chris: How about toilet bowl cleaners? Hopefully you don’t just use these during spring and you clean your toilet regularly.

Carolyn: Right!

Both laugh

Chris: They can be a concern right?

Carolyn: They definitely can! And again there’s a really wide range of toilet cleaners. Some of them can be, for example, strong acids, so again can cause burns. So again, knowing the exact name of the product. And, there’s the kind that that you use when use when you do your bathroom spring, well hopefully year round…

Chris laughs

Carolyn: But then there’s also the tablets that you put in the tank or put in the bowl, so there’s a very wide variety of those.

Chris: But again a lot of the sprays contain acids which can cause an immediate burn.

Carolyn: Immediate.

Chris: Some have ingredients that are called alkaline, which means they have a high pH instead of a low pH like an acid. Now it sounds maybe less scary than an acid, but it can cause just as bad if not worse of a burn.

Carolyn: Absolutely.

Chris: Let’s keep rolling with the scary ones: drain openers.

Carolyn: That also gets a three skull and crossbones on my list.

Chris laughs

Carolyn: Again that’s my own list. Drain openers as you can imagine, they’re meant to dissolve hair and dirt or whatever gets thrown down a drain accidentally or on purpose. They are very, they can cause burns very easily and very quickly.

Chris: Again they can be concentrated acids or alkalines.

Carolyn: Yeah, either one, right, and again, either direction can cause burns so be careful with these products.

Chris: How about laundry detergent? And everybody’s favorite, if there’s one thing you might know one the poison center for, it might be the Tide Pod challenge, huh?

Chris laughs

Carolyn: Oh, let’s hope not!

Carolyn: Laundry pods in general are very concentrated. We follow those closely, even for a day or more in some cases to make sure they’re not causing a burn. The pods are more concentrated, we worry about laundry detergent too, but pods are much more concentrated.

Chris: They don’t contain those acids and alkalines that we talked about but they are high concentration detergents, which is a chemical used to clean. It’s just the concentration of it that is so irritating.  

Carolyn: Exactly.

Chris: Laundry detergents can have a little more of a variety.

Carolyn: Yes, huge variety. You’re talking liquid, powder or a combo. There is so much variety.

The dishwasher pods are not the same as the laundry pods. Again, there’s detergents in there and we’re careful with them, and of course they’re at eye level.  But…

Chris: They are not tasty and you don’t want to bite into them.

Carolyn: Laundry pods, I’m telling you, even as an adult I want to play with that thing! They just look so fun and squishy but it very easily can break and get into your eye, and now you’re in trouble.

Chris: Let it be known that we do not recommend that.

Carolyn: No we don`t! And I never have done that.

Chris: That’s an official stance of the Northern New England Poison Center.

Carolyn: Of course, of course.

Chris: I guess we can talk about the more commonly encountered cleaners that are maybe a little bit less of a concern, but in the right circumstance absolutely can be a problem. Ones we get a lot of calls on, what are you thinking?

Carolyn: Dish soap would be the first thing, dish soap and hand soap, you know the pumps, right? Or the squeezy bottles.

Chris: Dawn, Ajax, whatever brand you like.

Carolyn: Yeah, exactly. Yeah those, they will definitely cause vomiting is what they usually do, they irritate the stomach and they make you throw up sometimes. But usually, they don’t do more than that. We generally don’t see burns with those. I mean certainly in the eye, that can be a different scenario but thankfully we tend to… We can handle those pretty quickly and easily when you call us.

Chris: Room sprays, deodorizers, you know, like fragrances generally not as big of a deal. Obviously you don’t want to drink from them.

Carolyn: Unless you spray them right in the face.

Chris: Yeah, they can be a little irritating. Honestly you smell enough of them it’ll give you a headache more than anything.

Carolyn: That’s true. That’s true with a lot of these cleaners actually. Disinfecting wipes are another one, we are using those a lot lately, right? As a whole society, everybody is and you just have to be careful with them. As always, wash your hands after you use them but we generally don’t see a lot of issues with those. We generally don’t have to send to the hospital.

Chris: A couple of atypicals. Atypical cleaners I guess so to speak that tend to be an issue. Wheel cleaner, wheel cleaner contains a chemical, some of them do anyway, contains a chemical called hydrofluoric acid and that’s really bad stuff if you get it on your skin, your hands or anywhere, um, it has the potential to cause some severe toxicity so that is one you want to keep stored away from the children. Keep it in a safe environment, make sure you are following the directions.

Carolyn: We’re talking about wheels of a car. So obviously you wouldn’t as likely have this in the house but you might have it in the garage.

Chris: Another good one to keep stored away: gun cleaners, gun-bluing agents.

Carolyn: Yeah, some of those can be very poisonous.

Chris: Gun-cleaning solutions. And then we kind of mentioned briefly with the percentage or concentration in bleach. I think you might have mentioned the word industrial I’m not sure but, industrial cleaners, right?

Carolyn: Yeah.

Chris: What are we worried about with those?

Carolyn: Well, they are just more concentrated, they have higher concentrations of some of these things that can cause a burn. So, be careful. Typically, typically people don’t have them in their house but maybe they use them at work or they might think to bring a product home because it works so well there, but they’re a different ball game.

Chris: I think that’s a pretty good list of what we’re using inside the house for spring cleaning. Maybe we’ll touch on the outside of the house cleaners and products we might be using once it gets a little warmer.

Carolyn: Another time! Something to look forward to!

Chris: Yeah, the grass is still dead, we’ll wait a second on that.

Carolyn: It is not green yet.

Chris: What are some of our common exposure scenarios that we encounter with children?

Carolyn: Yeah, so most of our—we have calls about adults getting exposed to cleaners, and children. So, first of all, with children, there are things like a lot of—when you put these products at the children’s eye level. For example, in buckets on the floor, a child thinks, oh a bucket full of water, and might want to even taste it or play with it. Same thing with the dish washer pods: dishwasher is open, the child wants to help, and they see that dispenser and they stick their finger in there ’cause they think it’s something to eat. And then with the toilet bowls. You know again, those are at eye level for a child and if they have that pretty blue water, they might actually stick a cup in there or certainly their fingers and taste it. So thinking about what’s at eye level, what they can be exposed to because they’re going to be attracted to that. You know if it looks like something fun.

Chris: Maybe one of the most common calls we get: kids opening up a door, like a pantry door, or storage closet, and just grabbing a bottle off the ground underneath there, right?

Carolyn: Yeah, of course.

Chris: Spraying themselves in the face or the eyes or inside the mouth

Carolyn: They want to help. They see what the parent is doing and they grab the bottle and they just don’t know to turn the sprayer away from their face and they spray it in their face or another child’s face. Definitely can be a problem. You know unfortunately once they’re old enough to really be helpful for cleaning the house, they don’t want to anymore!

Chris: Yeah.

Carolyn: But when they are little they can get into some trouble there and cause some issues.

Chris: How about with the adults? What are some of the more common situations?

Carolyn: The adult situations are more like not using gloves when maybe you need to. Not being in a well ventilated room.

Chris: Mixing cleaners!

Carolyn: Mixing cleaners, that’s probably number one, right? I can’t believe I didn’t say that first.

Chris: When you mix them it makes them stronger – get that grit out.

Carolyn: No! Chris, no! When you mix them it can cause a reaction and it can be more poisonous.

Chris: Right, cleaners we mix because we think it can increase strength, the strength of the product. Or adding a cleaner after you use the drain opener.

Carolyn: Right, yeah, all of those.

Chris: Mixing bleach with an acid or mixing bleach with ammonia can produce toxic fumes that can be a problem.

Carolyn: Or bleach on urine, like animal or a person.

Chris: Like cat urine.

Carolyn: That’s a big one, yeah.

Chris: Again, that’s all kind of dependent on the circumstances, and it can be an issue and is irritating. Don’t mix cleaners!

Carolyn: Yeah—don’t mix them! And you know, when you look online, which a lot of people do, it’s really scary, and as always, of course we want you to call. We can help with those situations.

Chris: We can put it into context.

Carolyn: Exactly. And another thing about kids, sometimes they get into—you put the cleaner away, you dump the bucket, you’re all set and you forget about the rag or the sponge. And you know, especially a little one crawling around, maybe teething, they’ll stick that thing in their mouth.

Chris: And now they get bacteria and cleaner in their mouth.

Carolyn: Yeah, or sometimes the new baby doesn’t smell too good because they have a dirty diaper and they’re spraying deodorizer all around, you know, on the child.

Chris: Well, how would we handle a situation, say the kid grabs a bottle and sprays themselves on their skin or in the eye—what’s the best thing to do?

Carolyn: Well, of course, call us. But first, you want to get it off, right? You want to get it off, so let’s start with eye. If it gets in the eye, no matter what the product is, the most important thing is to get it out of the eye. And we can, we will definitely help you with that when you call. Just to get you started, what we always recommend is using room temperature water, so it’s comfortable for the eye. You want to pour it over the bridge of the nose so it’s flowing through the eye, not being poured directly on the eye. In other words, we don’t want pressure, don’t grab a garden hose or something. You don’t want pressure on the eye. And we want to do that for 15 minutes, sometimes more, depends on the cleaner. And when you call we’ll tell you.

Chris: A lot of times, the flush can be the solution.

Carolyn: Right!

Chris: Other times, if it’s a nasty enough cleaner, it may still require evaluation in a health care facility, but the best first step is almost always a flush. But, if something gets in your eye, give us a ring.

Carolyn: Yeah, we can definitely help with that.

Chris: Same goes for skin, right? Um, and again, it’s all dependent on what kind of cleaner you got here. We talked about oven cleaners and drain openers being super corrosive potentially. Dish soap, not so much. Obviously you’re putting hand soap on your hands it’s probably not going to cause a burn. But there are ones that can cause a nasty burn and you need to wash off the area with warm water.

Carolyn: Right, anything left on the skin, you know you get a little bleach on your pants and you don’t think anything of it, and hours later you realize you end up with a chemical burn, so we have to be careful. Same thing with—and that’s a good thing to note too, if a child gets into it, they probably got it on their clothes. You need to change them and wash them up.

Chris: Right, might be time for a bath. How about an inhalation exposure?  I mean, this can occur with kids and adults. Maybe even more so with adults, we get calls on where they are cleaning in a poorly ventilated room and they inhaled quite a bit, or combined cleaners. Created a fume. What do we do in that circumstance?

Carolyn: Fresh air right? Number one, fresh air.

Chris: Get out of the room.

Carolyn: If you can easily open the window, but don’t stay in the room for any longer than you need to—get some fresh air. Go sit outside. If it’s the middle of winter, which of course we’re talking about spring, just for future reference, you can open a window and sit right there. But you really want to…

Chris: Get some fans going potentially if you want to get a cross breeze.

Carolyn: Exactly.

Chris: It’s all about getting fresh air and if you have like a condition like asthma or COPD and your airways are a bit more reactive we might have to consider things differently so it’s something worth noting, or if you’re having persistent coughing, chest pain, difficulty breathing—anything like that, obviously concerning, and regardless we want you to give us a ring and we can talk about management from there.

Carolyn: Don’t wait until it’s really bothering you.

Chris: Last big piece is probably ingestion or swallowing some of these chemicals, right?

Carolyn: Yeah, that’s probably our most common one I would say for cleaners. And, you know, you can always rinse out the mouth, but you don’t always push fluids, and that’s something that people don’t—that happens sometimes, but we don’t want necessarily to give a ton of fluids, it really depends on the cleaner.

Chris: Don’t make yourself vomit either!

Carolyn: And definitely don’t do that—yes, right—thanks, Chris. Because if it burns going down, it’s gonna burn coming back up. So, be really careful. Rinse mouth, give us a call.

Chris: Another one, there’s a great range of what’s in these types of cleaners. Some of them, if you swallow a little bit, it’s not a problem at all.  Some of it’s a big deal. So, it’s another area where we can provide context. How about prevention tips? It is National Poison Prevention Week, as I mentioned!

Carolyn: Oh, that’s true! We shouldn’t leave that out, right?

Chris: That’s our big piece here, that’s what we’re doing this week!

Carolyn: That’s true.

Chris: So, I think we probably touched on a couple of the big ones but do we have any helpful hints right now?

Carolyn: I think, you know, one simple one obviously we can all do is reading the label. I know that sounds silly, but you know sometimes we forget to read the label. Should we be wearing gloves? Should we, does it say right there open the windows because this has strong fumes, right?

Chris: Do you need a mask?

Carolyn: Do you need a mask, right? Just making sure what, what you need to do. Is it supposed to be diluted—you know—were you supposed to use this with water instead of straight?

Chris: That’s a great one.

Carolyn: You know, sometimes you don’t know until you take a look at the label.

Chris: Um, something we’ve mentioned on previous podcasts, I think we talked about antifreeze in this sort of context—store products in their original containers, right? Don’t put them in a milk jug, don’t put them in a soda bottle, a glass. How many times have we had people drink cleaner that they thought was a cup of water?

Carolyn: So often, so often, yeah.

Chris: And that can be a problem.

Carolyn: And it’s not just kids, it’s kids and adults. You see a glass full of something, it’s by the sink, you just assume it’s water.

Chris: That’s right. I think we hit enough on do not mix cleaners, they get the message.

Carolyn: Yeah, I think so.

Chris: Don’t mix them!

Carolyn: Yes, don’t, just don’t!

Chris: As you’ve said, we just mentioned storing products in the original containers. We definitely get calls where, cap was left off, kid just happens to grab it, put it down in a matter of seconds.

Carolyn: Yeah, I mean kids are fast.

Chris: Keep those products high and out of the reach of children and pets.

Carolyn: Yup, or a locked cabinet if you have one.

Chris: Make sure you’ve got safe conditions for cleaning. Mask, gloves, good ventilation!

Carolyn: Right—there you go!

Chris: We got anything else on the list?

Carolyn: I think that sums it up. I think that’s pretty good. We just need a little bit warmer weather so we all open our windows and start doing this.

Chris: Another couple weeks. We’re getting another cold snap and some snow, let’s be real. In April, it’s going to happen once.

Carolyn: It did snow last night.

Chris: After that it will be all right.

Carolyn: OK.

Chris: We should plug that the NNEPC does have a blog on this exact topic. If you go on NNEPC.org and search: Stay safe while spring cleaning.

Carolyn: Nice.

Chris: You’ll find a nice blog post we have on some of what we covered. Hopefully we gave you a little more insight. Again, can’t encourage you enough to go on aapcc.org and check out some of the links they have on National Poison Prevention Week. Again there are virtual events available on Facebook. We want to thank you all again for listening to this episode of Poison Center Pointers. You can like, share and subscribe to us on Facebook, Twitter, and visit our website at nnepc.org. If you have an actual poisoning emergency, scenario or even just a question, contact the NNEPC by calling—what was the number again?

Carolyn: 1-800-222-1222.

Chris: Text the word POISON to 85511 and chat online at nnepc.org. Best of luck cleaning everyone!

Carolyn: Yup—happy spring!

Chris: Happy spring!

Carolyn: And happy Poison Prevention Week!

Chris: It’s going to be in the 70s next time we have something hopefully.

Carolyn: That would be awesome. Bye, everybody!

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