- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2001

Name your poison, call for the cureToddlers with a taste for wild mushrooms, bites from rare African snakes, car owners who confuse anti-freeze for Mountain Dew — these are just a few of the 150 frantic calls that the National Capital Poison Center fields each day during the summer months.

Summer is prime time for a poisoning, especially among children. With adults lazing by the pool and the freedom of no school, children have plenty of chances to get their hands and mouths on poisonous things. Not to mention all the fun stuff that comes with family vacations: sunburned skin and bites from weird-looking bugs.

During the summer, "the opportunity for an exposure increases outdoors as well as indoors," says Rose Ann Soloway, a clinical toxicologist at the D.C.-based National Capital Poison Center, which takes calls from the District, Northern Virginia and Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland.

Local poison centers ring with calls about adults and teen-agers, though 50 percent deal with children younger than 6.

"Children are curious. It's normal that they explore," Mrs. Soloway says. "They learn by hand-to-mouth behavior. If it's within reach, they will put whatever it is into their mouths."

But don't start fretting just yet, because about 75 percent of calls that area poison centers receive can be fixed over the phone. So, take a deep breath and keep a level-head.

"Remain calm," advises Bruce Anderson, a clinical toxicologist for the Maryland Poison Center in Baltimore. "Remember kids get poisoned a lot. It's exceedingly rare that kids have life-threatening symptoms."

Last year, 1.1 million children were exposed to poisons nationwide, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. From those, 20 children younger than 6 died, and 72 children between the ages of 6 and 19 died.

Adding up children and adults, 2.1 million poison exposures were reported to poison centers nationwide. From the poisonings, 828 adults died, 724 of those were intentional, meaning suicides and drug overdoses, according to the AAPCC.

Both children and adults are prey to spider bites, bee stings and snakebites. These summer ouchies bring the most calls, say poison information specialists who man the phones at the National Capital Poison Center.

Nurses and pharmacists juggle phones at area poison centers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. All have received special training, which lasts six months to a year depending on how much the candidate already knows. They are trained by medical directors and clinical toxicologists at the poison centers where they wish to work. After the training, they take a national exam at the centers to be certified as poison information specialists.

During summer months, the Maryland Poison Center receives frequent calls about dizzy children who've sneaked repeated swigs of their parent's beer or liquor.

Lawn and garden pesticides are also a major problem. These substances can be easily inhaled or splashed on the skin, Mr. Anderson says.

And don't sink your teeth into that juicy burger too soon. Too many people forget to stash away the lighter fluid and gasoline after grilling out, says Mr. Anderson, making it quite easy for children to get their little hands on the toxic fluids.

Other poisons that come with the summer sun are wild berries and mushrooms. Local poison centers get scores of calls from people sampling these forbidden foods.

People often get sick from eating poke berries and their leaves. While some people can stomach the deep-red berries, other people become violently sick, Mr. Anderson says.

"Some folks claim you can eat the [poke] leaves," he says. "But it's not worthwhile. Go to the store and get a bag of lettuce. Then for sure, you will not get an upset stomach."

Teens often chew gypsum weed, which can be found in Maryland and Virginia, to get intoxicated, Mr. Anderson says. Children and adults alike pop wild mushrooms in their mouths without a second thought.

The National Capital Poison Center has this quote on its Web site. "There are bold mushroom hunters and there are old mushroom hunters, but there are no old bold mushroom hunters."

When it comes to a poisoning, the sooner something's done to remedy it, the better. Chances of serious harm increase the longer one waits to seek treatment. Mrs. Soloway offers a few tips on what to do in those scary seconds after a poisoning.

• If a poison gets into the eyes: Rinse with running water for 15 minutes. Do not force them open.

• For poison on the skin: Remove any clothing with the poison on it. Rinse skin with running water for 15 minutes.

• For an inhaled poison: Get into fresh air.

• If a cleaning product is swallowed: Drink one glass of water or milk. (Unless, of course, the person is unconscious, having convulsions or cannot swallow.)

Take these steps immediately, then call the nearest poison center. For any other poisonings, call the poison center immediately.

If a caller is in serious need of medical attention, specialists at the National Capital Center often call 911 then conference the 911 operator and the caller. Other times, it's easier for the caller to dial 911 on his own, so that his address, not the center's, appears on the 911 system.

Poison centers often receive calls from doctors at hospitals and clinics seeking their advice on a certain patient, but they are not directly connected with hospitals.

It was surprisingly quiet on a recent day at the National Capital Poison Center, just a few specialists managing the phones in a small, bright office downtown in the District. No panic. They soothe callers with a sort of motherly reassurance. "They're going to be fine" is their mantra.

When a person calls, the specialist keys the symptoms into a poison database, searching for the best treatment. New mothers call the most.

The center's shelves are stuffed with encyclopedias, journal articles and countless indexes, just in a case a call comes that's out of the ordinary cold medicine overdose.

"There's never a dull moment," says Karen Kraft, a specialist from Falls Church.

One of her strangest calls came just before Thanksgiving. A farmer found his turkeys gobbling up some poisonous berries. He wanted to know if they were safe to slaughter and sell for holiday dinner tables. Miss Kraft researched and discovered that as long as their guts were cleared, the turkeys were just fine to eat.

Several lies and wrong ideas about poisons are floating around out there. Mr. Anderson received an e-mail this summer claiming that children's waterproof sunscreen could cause blindness.

"That's hooey," he says. "It irritates the heck out of eyes. It stings, but it won't make you blind."

Another rumor is that sodium laurel sulfate — an ingredient in many lotions, soaps and shampoos — causes cancer. It doesn't, Mr. Anderson assures. And silica gel, those little white packets that come in boxes of new shoes are harmless, he says.

"They suck up moisture and keep things from developing mold. It is basically dried sand," the toxicologist says.

Miss Kraft wants to clear up a misconception once and for all.

"Poinsettias aren't poisonous," she says. "Years ago, in the '20s, a child was found dead near a poinsettia plant in Hawaii. But you have to eat about 500 leaves for it to be a problem."

There are many things people should never, never, never do when a poisoning occurs, like sticking the fingers down the throat. And never suck the venom from a snakebite, Mr. Anderson says.

For safety's sake, always keep a bottle of syrup of ipecac in the cupboard. Ipecac, a medicine that induces vomiting, can be found at most drugstores. But don't use it without consulting a poison center first. In certain cases, taking the medicine will make things worse. Such is the case if a person swallows kerosene or gasoline.

"If gasoline or kerosene gets into the lungs, it can cause real big problems, like breathing difficulties. Throwing up increases the likelihood of it getting into the lungs," Mr. Anderson says. "If it burns on the way down, it will burn on the way back up."

Around 90 percent of all poisonings occur in and around the house, Mrs. Soloway says. Poison centers receive many calls about automatic dishwasher detergent. Some extremely toxic household items are: diarrhea medicines and fruit pits and seeds.

Clinical toxicologists recommend poison-proofing the house. Take an inventory of potential poisons.

"See what you have and where it is," Mr. Anderson says. "Then, stash things away. Putting things up high is not enough."

In a few cases, children have pulled out drawers, making steps to explore high cabinets, he says. Potential poisons must be stored in a closed, lockable cabinet. Mr. Anderson says magnetic locks that must be opened with a key are effective. Plastic hooks placed inside cabinet doors are not. "Child-resistant is not childproof," he says.

Above all, parents should keep close watch on their children.

"Everything is poisonous," Mr. Anderson says. "The dose is what makes the difference. You can die if you drink too much water." And when in doubt, don't hesitate to call the nearest poison center.

"It's never an overreaction," he says. "It's a whole lot better to make a phone call, then not make the call and find out you do have a problem."

For all poisoning emergencies, call the new national number: 800/222-1222. This number will connect you to the nearest poison center in your area.

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