As reported by The New York Times, July 29, 2007.

Remember: If It’s Toxic, Toddlers Will Find It

By Lary Bloom

I FOUND my way to the Connecticut Poison Control Center as so many others have — by accident.

One night, I noticed that the toothpaste tasted odd. When I inspected the tube, I found that the substance on my brush wasn’t Colgate but hydrocortisone anti-itch cream. I tried to read the tube’s label for hints about what to do, but the type was tiny, and I could decipher only the bold-faced “Warning” — impetus enough for me to call my doctor, whose answering service connected me to the Poison Control Center’s Hotline Room.

In a few minutes, my concern dissipated — no cause for alarm, I was reassured by a nurse. I also learned that I am one of scores of people around the state who, without intention, have tried to fight cavities with hydrocortisone, vaginal cream, acne medication, household glue, diaper rash application or other substances.

News reports have warned us of antifreeze compound in toothpaste from China, but we can’t hold the Chinese accountable for our own considerable folly. We are, as I discovered, a careless people — 28,000 of us in Connecticut every year who bring on our own toxic emergencies. For when it comes to making poison a household staple, we excel.

A few days after my toothpaste incident, I visited the Hotline Room, housed at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. My intent was to see how this free service operates, and to learn more about ordinary dangers. Indeed, during my hours there, staff members answered calls from around the state (this is the only such facility in Connecticut) with the following incidents reported:

A father found his 1-year-old daughter with the nozzle of de-icing fluid in her mouth. A hospital reported that an 8-year-old boy had tasted a glow stick (a common summer phenomenon). A parent noticed that her 14-month-old daughter had ingested hand sanitizer. Another said her toddler had chewed Prozac. Other children that day swallowed mouthwash, sunscreen or muscle relaxant.

Indeed, these hours were typical. About 43 percent of the calls over a year’s time involve the actions of youngsters. It was this phenomenon that, in 1957, motivated Connecticut to mandate, legislatively, a poison control center.

The 50th anniversary is obviously at hand, though you may not have noticed the hoopla. Even the employees — nurses, doctors and the center’s administrator — barely noticed it. The cake was small, and the proclamation from the governor couldn’t do justice to the center’s service. The annual budget is $1.2 million, but it saves that amount many times over by preventing unnecessary emergency room visits. It has also calmed the nerves of tens of thousands of parents, grandparents, day care workers and others who feared the worst, and who usually emerged from their crises relieved and chastened.

They have learned it isn’t the exotic poisons — strychnine or cyanide — that are the biggest worry. The No. 1 killer is not venom from Connecticut’s dangerous snakes (copperheads and timber rattlers) or the imported products from third-world lands without sufficient quality control. (Chinese toothpaste has not been a significant issue here.) Instead, the primary danger is overdoses of analgesics, which include (aside from morphine) over-the-counter medications: Tylenol, Advil and aspirin.

Parents who are careful to cover their household electrical plugs may not be as diligent about putting pills away. In fact, the hottest time in the 24-hour Hotline Room is 7 p.m., the dinner hour, when mom and dad are sipping wine and stirring the risotto while the tykes are sampling everything in the house they can get their mouths around.

Manufacturers of toxic products often don’t make it any easier to prevent such incidents. Many package their goods in ways that make for confusion. For example, some antihistamine tablets look a lot like Good & Plenty candy, Wellbutrin (an antidepressant) like M&Ms, and ferrous gluconate (iron pills) like Skittles. Take a look at your container of Comet cleanser — a dead ringer for Kraft parmesan cheese. Rubbing alcohol is in a bottle similar to that of Poland Springs. Mistolin cleaning liquid could be mistaken for apple juice.

It is no wonder that during my visit I began to feel as if all the ordinary fears of the world had multiplied. But that is not the message I left with. When the center’s administrator, Bernard C. Sangalli, was asked if he sometimes had that feeling of doom, he said: “Not at all. I’ve learned how much the human body can tolerate. Children may suffer seizures or coma or respiratory depression, but with good care, they can come out without long-term effects.”

But, even so, let’s get our houses in order. Paste this vital phone number to the medicine cabinet: 1-800-222-1222. Should the occasion arise to confess your panic or embarrassment, you’ll get a sympathetic ear that has heard it all before.