Toxins prove deadly in the home

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 January, 2012, 12:00am


Household poisonings can make for bizarre reading, but the threat is deadly real. Toxins took the lives of 38 Hongkongers last year, in some cases from consuming the most mundane of household items, out of the 4,413 poisoning cases reported to the Hospital Authority.

Some innocuous-seeming items are easily mistaken for food by small children and some older people, Dr Lau Fei-lung, director of the Hong Kong Poison Information Centre, said last week in a review of the centre's work in 2011.

Three items in particular stood out among last year's poisonings, he said: iron powder refills for hand-warmer bags, toilet block cleaners in jelly form, and hazardous mixtures of bleach and caustic sodas - such as paint strippers - for cleaning.

Cases of two seniors in their eighties and one five-year-old eating the hand warmer refills were reported to the Hospital Authority. 'One of the old people apparently thought it was sesame soup powder,' said Lau. 'We have to make sure both young and old people understand which items are dangerous - the iron powder can severely burn the stomach wall.'

The refill packets, imported from Japan, had only Japanese writing on the outside. Lau suggested that imported commercial packaging should have additional labels in Chinese and English.

There were three cases of poisoning last year from consuming jellied toilet block cleaner; all three were small children aged between nine and 22 months old. 'It's pretty-looking and resembles jelly, which children enjoy eating,' said Lau. 'Children have to be told very clearly not to eat it, especially when they're already using the bathroom independently.'

The producers of the toilet block cleaner might consider making it look less like food, Lau said.

Some poisonings are not selfinflicted, such as accidents and bug bites and stings that trigger allergic reactions. The Hospital Authority recorded 1,154 of those cases last year, including two bee stings blamed for causing heart attacks.

Lau urged people with life-threatening allergies to carry an autoinjector, like the EpiPen, with them for emergencies. A quick injection in the leg can stop an allergic reaction.

But most of the poisonings were preventable, and caused by ignorance. Out of the 38 deaths, 14 were related to misusing medical drugs - the highest single cause of the deaths.

There were 40 fatalities due to accidental poisoning in 2008 and 2010; and 33 in 2009. The total numbers of annual poisoning cases have been on an upward trend: 4,029 in 2008, 4,338 in 2009 and 4,418 in 2010.

The second-highest cause, with six deaths, was intoxication from burning charcoal in what were probably suicides. Four people died from illicit-drug use: three with opium and one with a potent mix of other drugs.