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They're very convenient, but liquid laundry detergent packets are extremely dangerous to children. And despite repeated warnings to parents, an alarming number of kids are getting their hands on these brightly colored, but toxic little packets with serious consequences.
Lawmakers want to change that, the industry says there's no need for new legislation, and parents say more needs to be done to make them safer.
Poison control centers across the country received more than 17,000 calls about children who were exposed to detergent packets between 2012 and 2013, according to the National Poison Data System. During this two-year period, 769 children had to be hospitalized for treatment of seizures, vomiting blood, fluid in the lungs, respiratory problems, gastric burns, even comas. One child, a seven-month old boy, died.
"This is a big deal," said Dr. Kyran Quinlan, associate professor at Rush University Medical Center and chair of the committee on poison prevention at the American Academy of Pediatrics. "In the past we've always tried to protect kids from hazardous substances in the home. This is a brand new hazard and we need to address it."
These packets are more likely to cause harm than traditional detergents because the detergent inside them is super-concentrated and can make a child sick in just a few minutes, safety advocates note.
The Detergent Poisoning and Child Safety (PACS) Act, recently introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dick Durban (D-Ill.) would require safety standards for liquid laundry detergent, similar to other hazardous household products.
"Anyone with common sense can see how dangerous it is to have liquid detergent in colorful, bite-sized packets that children will inevitably swallow," said Rep. Speier in a statement. "It is irresponsible to market a product that is so unsafe to children. These packets must be subject to the same robust safety measures and warning labels that we already expect on detergent, medicine, and similar household products."
If passed, PACS would direct the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to require child-resistant packaging for liquid detergent packets within 18 months. Standards would also have to be developed to deal with:
Detergent manufacturers say there is no need for Congress to get involved. They insist they're already addressing the problem through modified packaging, better warning labels and consumer awareness programs.
"The safety of these products is the number one priority," said Brian Sansoni, vice president of communications at the American Cleaning Institute. "Manufacturers of these packets are very committed to reducing the number of accidents."
Sansoni told TODAY the most important factor in reducing these accidental exposures is to "remind parents and raise awareness of the importance of storing these products away from children."
Safety experts agree that parental education is important, but it won't eliminate the problem.
"Stuff happens, even to well-meaning parents who are on top of things," Dr. Quinlan said. "We now realize that the way to protect kids is to make their world safer – and they way you do that is by putting hazardous substances in child-resistant packaging."
Jill Koziol, a mother of two, considers herself a well-educated and cautious parent. Koziol started using laundry packets when the family moved from California to an apartment in New York City and had to go downstairs to do the laundry. The laundry detergent box was always stored high up in a closet, she said.
Last September, as she was headed out the door, Koziol put a tall laundry basket – with a detergent packet on top – on the floor. She turned to help her two-year with a toy and in an instant her 8-month old, Cate, crawled over to the basket, pulled herself up and put the packet in her mouth.
"I heard a gag as she bit into the detergent package," Koziol remembered.
Koziol grabbed little Cate, washed out her mouth with water, called poison control and eventually took her daughter to the emergency room. Within an hour, Cate had breathing problems and needed to be intubated. She spent the next few days in pediatric intensive care.
Koziol is now on a mission to get safety packaging on these products.
"I completely take responsibility for the fact that my daughter had access to the packet for that moment. I will be kicking myself for the rest of my life," Koziol told TODAY. "I'm not trying to get these taken off the market and I'm not trying to abdicate parental responsibility to the manufacturers. But in this case, there is more that can be done. The numbers are just too high for this to be about negligent parenting."
"The industry has taken some important steps, but at this point what they've proposed to do is not a comprehensive solution to the serious hazard posed by these products to children," said William Wallace with Consumers Union. "While parents need to do everything possible to keep these packets away from their kids, there's a lot that can be done to help them."
Since 2012, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has warned parents and caregivers about the "the deadly risk" laundry packets pose to children. CPSC Chairman Elliot Kaye told TODAY, the group working on voluntary industry safety standards has "stepped up the pace and seriousness of their efforts" in recent months. He said the commission "stands ready to implement any law passed by Congress and signed by the President."