- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

While making sure poisonous household cleaners and chemicals are under lock and key, many people may overlook another hazard — plants, says Rose Ann Soloway, clinical toxicologist at the National Capital Poison Center, part of the department of emergency medicine at George Washington University Medical Center in Northwest.

“It’s very common for children to chew on or swallow plants,” Ms. Soloway says. “The majority of poison exposure happens in and around someone’s home.”

Plants and other household items can cause a variety of negative reactions, ranging from stomachaches and rashes to death. National Poison Prevention Week, March 20 through 26, aims to raise awareness about the complications associated with poison exposure.

If adults are poisoned by plants, it’s often because they use something improperly, Ms. Soloway says. For instance, adults may make tea from an herb they think is safe when it’s not.

“Don’t wait to see if anything will happen,” Ms. Soloway says. “Immediately pick up the telephone and call the poison center, 1-800/222-1222.”

Adults also have been known to misidentify wild mushrooms. Unless someone is an expert in identifying mushrooms, it’s not safe to eat them, Ms. Soloway says.

“It’s too easy to get the nonpoisonous ones confused with the poisonous ones,” she warns. “The only way to tell the difference is to buy them in the supermarket.”

A curious youngster wandering in the back yard might eat just the cap of a mushroom, but adults who eat mushrooms from the yard have been known to serve them to the whole family, Ms. Soloway says.

Therefore, when adults are poisoned, it’s usually worse than when children are poisoned. Children usually leave evidence of what they have eaten, and they tend to eat smaller amounts of the substance — unless they are served large portions by adults.

“If adults think it’s parsnip or a wild carrot, and if it’s really hemlock, they will be seriously poisoned,” Ms. Soloway says. “If you don’t know the difference, it can look a lot the same.”

Colorful flowers and berries are other eye candy that can lure children, Ms. Soloway says. For instance, red holly berries, red yew berries and purple pokeweed berries are poisonous. Azalea, lily of the valley and oleander flowers also are poisonous.

Young children explore by putting things in their mouths, she says. When they are outside, children need to be supervised closely. Indoor plants and flowers need to be kept out of reach.

“Whether or not the plants are poisonous, they can still be choking hazards for children,” Ms. Soloway says. “It would be smart for adults not to buy poisonous plants, but also put them out of reach of children.”

Making a home poison-safe is usually just common sense, says David Yost, plant specialist at Merrifield Garden Center at the Fair Oaks location in Fairfax County.

“People and plants have lived together for hundreds of years,” Mr. Yost says. “Hopefully, we can all just get along.”

Sometimes, the Poison Control Center refers people to Merrifield Garden Center to identify a plant a child may have eaten, he says. However, because every poison case is different, Mr. Yost depends on medical professionals to diagnose and treat patients.

Customers often ask whether a plant is poisonous before they buy it, Mr. Yost says.

“There are degrees of toxicity,” Mr. Yost says. “Some of them will cause a mild rash, and everything in between.”

One plant that is more hazardous than others is foxglove, Mr. Yost says.

“I imagine if you ingest enough of it, it could be lethal, but people react differently,” Mr. Yost says. “It also depends on how much is ingested. The herb rue can cause a severe reaction in some people and none in others.”

Touching plants, such as rue, is known to cause rashes, Mr. Yost says. Poison ivy, poison oak, hyacinth and some azaleas can cause irritation.

“I personally cannot handle hyacinth,” Mr. Yost says. “It’s a common bulb used in the landscape. It makes my skin burn and gives me a rash.”

Oleander and castor bean also can be potentially dangerous, says Gene Sumi, horticulturist at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, Md. Castor beans have ricin in them, which is extremely toxic.

“All parts of the oleander plant are toxic because of the sap,” Mr. Sumi says. “People usually plant them in pots and keep them as a house plant and take them outside in the summer.”

With the upcoming spring season, pet owners should be aware that cats can become sick from eating Easter lilies, says Dana Farbman, senior manager of client and professional relations for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Animal Control Center in Urbana, Ill.

Any lily from the genus lilium or the genus hemerocallis can cause acute kidney failure in cats, she says. Pet owners should be aware that plants are often known by different names, which might make them confusing to identify.

“Make sure you get an identification based on the genus and species to see if it’s toxic,” Ms. Farbman says. “The genus and species are the universal identifiers.”

Along with plants, other gardening and household items, such as fertilizers, insect repellents, cleaning products, gasoline and swimming-pool chemicals, can be trouble, says Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council in Northwest, a nonprofit organization.

These toxic substances should never be mixed, she says. Also, placing them behind child safety locks is important, she adds. More than half of the 2 million poison exposures each year are in children younger than 6.

“The real key is to be an educated consumer and read labels,” Ms. Appy says. “If you see the words, ‘caution,’ ‘warning’ or ‘danger,’ those are items that need to be carefully controlled.”

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