The mortality rate of poisonings has more than quadrupled over the past 12 years, leading a drug safety expert to raise concerns over drug abuse and the growing number of suicides caused by charcoal burning.
Chinese University's Centre for Food and Drug Safety said that of reported poisoning cases, the death rate had jumped nearly five times, from 3.4 per cent in 1992 to 15.2 per cent in 2003.
Thomas Chan Yan-keung, professor of the medicine and therapeutics department, said the rise could mainly be attributed to suicides, in particular those that involved burning charcoal. Professor Chan is also the centre's director.
'The mortality rate has risen drastically over the years,' he said.
From 1991 to 2002, between 4,800 and 5,500 acute hospital admissions a year were related to poisoning, accounting for about 5 per cent of all acute admissions. In 2003, the number of admissions related to poisoning dropped to 3,663.
Paul Yip Siu-fai, director of the University of Hong Kong's Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, said charcoal burning accounted for more than 80 per cent of the deaths from suicidal poisonings in 2003. Overdosing on drugs was another major means of suicide poisoning.
In 1997, only 1 per cent of suicides were caused by charcoal burning. The following year the figure rose to 5 per cent. Now, it is the cause of more than one in every four suicides and is the second most common method of suicide after jumping from high buildings.
Professor Chan said most accidental poisonings could be prevented.
'I would like to particularly remind parents that one of the most toxic products which can also be easily accessed by children at home is drain cleaner. The product is very cheap and popular but it contains corrosive acid. Drinking it can be fatal,' he said.
He said other accidental poisoning cases were caused by adverse drug reactions and inappropriate changes in drug dosage by patients who failed to fully comply with doctors' instructions.
The Centre for Food and Drug Safety, which was launched last month, is the city's first centre for studying and investigating poisoning cases in Hong Kong.