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Child poisonings from laundry detergent packets prompt legislation

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Posted at 7:00 PM, Feb 26, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-27 10:10:52-05

Highly concentrated laundry detergent in brightly colored, palm-size packets are proving so tempting to young children that 17 members of Congress filed legislation Thursday to make the toxic products less attractive to kids. 

Poison control centers nationally have reported 899 calls so far this year about small children ingesting or otherwise coming in contact with the chemicals.

The packets, first introduced in America three years ago, triggered calls for safety improvements early on. The product is an innovation designed so consumers can transport detergent in smaller and more portable containers.

The new bills introduced in Congress would mandate standards from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to reduce the toxicity of the detergent and require safer, child-resistant packaging within 18 months.

“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. Jackie Speier (D-California), who introduced a House version of the bill. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 11,713 calls last year regarding children age five and younger who were exposed to the packets. A majority experienced adverse reactions, including vomiting, coughing or choking and respiratory distress, according to a press release by Durbin.

The products have left at least one child dead and were responsible for hundreds of hospitalizations between 2012 and 2013, according to Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr. Kyran Quinlan, chair of The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, said children under age three are most at risk, accounting for 73 percent of documented cases.

In response to the action in Congress, the leading industry group representing cleaning products called the legislation unnecessary.

The American Cleaning Institute said companies had already made changes to the exterior packaging containing the products to better conceal the packets and had attached stronger warnings about the potential dangers.  The group has also cautioned adults to be more careful in storing and using the product, and in 2012 the industry launched a consumer public awareness and safety campaign.

“Manufacturers of liquid laundry detergent packets are very committed to reducing the number of accidents with these products involving children, which are used safely by millions of consumers,” the group said in a statement.

“Our manufacturers are taking this situation very seriously,” Nancy Bock, the ACI’s senior vice president for education, said in an interview.  That’s why they have been proactive with the changes in packaging, with the warning labels…. and with the (public awareness) campaign.” She said the industry is discussing other possible improvements.

Speier released a link to a video on her Facebook page Thursday demonstrating how easily a laundry detergent packet still available to consumers can burst open. The packet in the video was purchased two weeks ago from a local Washington D.C. supermarket, said Speier’s office.

 Durbin said the industry must do more.

“Of course parents should do all that they can to keep laundry detergent packets out of the reach of children, but companies can do much more to address the rising number of poisonings head on,” he said. “We can still have convenience without sacrificing safety for children and families.”

Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America have come out in support of the legislation.

“Today, liquid detergent packets are getting more and more popular, but the protections for safety are completely inadequate, despite the known hazards,” said Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy at Consumers Union.

If you have a tip about an investigation, email mark.greenblatt@scripps.com or angela.hill@scripps.com. You can also tweet @greenblattmark or @angelamhill