The problem with laundry detergent pods

Liquid laundry packs can be poisonous, and that's why Consumer Reports no longer recommends them

Published: July 16, 2015 06:00 AM

 Since single-load laundry detergent pods hit the mainstream market in early 2012, two things have become clear: The product is a convenient, often effective way to do the laundry—and it's a serious health hazard for young children. In the first six months of 2015, poison-control centers nationwide received 6,046 reports of kids 5 and younger ingesting or inhaling pods, or getting pod contents on their skin or in their eyes, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC). That's a pace set to pass the 2014 total of 11,714.

As early as September 2012, Consumer Reports called on manufacturers to make pods safer. Many responded with positive change—for example, switching from clear to opaque plastic for outer containers and, on some, adding child-resistant latches to make it more difficult to get to the pods. But too many kids are still getting their hands on them, often with grave consequences.

Given the continued danger, we have made the decision to not include pods on our list of recommended laundry detergents. (None makes the cut in our latest tests, but some have been picks in the past.) And we strongly urge households where children younger than 6 are ever present to skip them altogether; our new position doesn't apply to laundry (or dishwasher) pods that contain powder, because injuries associated with them are less frequent and less severe.

It's not unprecedented for us to withhold recommendations based on external safety data. In 2005 we did so with sport-­utility vehicles that failed the federal rollover test or didn't have electronic stability control, or ESC. We think that encouraged certain manufacturers to put ESC on their vehicles ahead of the federal mandate that took effect in 2012.

We recognize the role parents and caregivers play in keeping children safe, but we believe the unique risks posed by liquid laundry pods warrant this action, at least until the adoption of tougher safety measures leads to a meaningful drop in injuries.

June 2017 Update: Read our special report, "Liquid Laundry Detergent Pods Pose Lethal Risk for Adults With Dementia."

Can you pick out the pods? Scroll to the bottom of this page to see them identified.

In the blink of an eye

Sept. 3, 2014, was laundry day at the home of Jill and Peter Koziol, who had recently moved from California to New York City with their two young daughters, 2-year-old Clare and 8-month-old Cate. The family was living in an apartment building with a separate laundry room, so out of convenience they'd made the switch from bottled detergent to Tide Pods.

Jill pulled a pod from its container, which was stored on an upper shelf in a closet, and set it on top of a tall laundry hamper. "I'd always heard that life happens in a split second, and it did for me that day," Jill says, recalling the instant when she turned to help Clare clean up some toys just as newly mobile Cate pulled herself onto the hamper and bit into the pod. "I heard her gag and turned to see the packet drop from her mouth," she says.

Jill accepts responsibility for leaving a household cleaner within reach of her children. But she thinks the events that followed reveal a systemwide confusion. First there was the call to poison control, whose operator treated the situation like any laundry detergent exposure, basically advising a wait-and-see approach. When Cate began vomiting, Jill called 911 and within 20 minutes Cate was at the pediatric ER. Again, the doctors and nurses approached the situation as they would a routine detergent exposure.

Cate did appear to stabilize. But 30 minutes later she went into respiratory distress, marked by severe wheezing, gagging, and drooling. Jill watched as her baby was intubated and transferred to an intensive care unit, where she would spend the next two days. Cate's breathing eventually normalized, and a gastrointestinal scope revealed no damage to her esophagus. "We're very blessed," Jill says. But other children have not been so lucky.

A different kind of danger

When curious kids find their way into regular liquid laundry detergent, the result is often nothing worse than an upset stomach. Laundry deteregent pods are presenting more serious symptoms. Along with vomiting, lethargy, and delirium, some victims have stopped breathing. Eye injuries are another common hazard. And since 2013, at least two children have died after ingesting a pod.

Many consumers don't know about those enhanced risks, and even the medical community is still trying to make sense of them. "No one is really sure why liquid pods are so much more toxic than other types of detergent," says Marie Steiner, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. "As the number of exposures increase, the breadth of symptoms seems to be increasing."

Given the varied dangers of laundry detergent pods, it's not surprising how many kids are ending up in emergency rooms or other treatment facilities. Based on an in-depth analysis of 2013 data by the AAPCC, 4,692 of the 10,877 reported pod-related exposures required medical attention, more than all other laundry detergents combined. (See below for more details.)

The push for more protections

Tide Pods opaque container

Soon after the launch of liquid laundry pods, manufacturers started looking for ways to make the product safer. Procter & Gamble, maker of Tide Pods, came out with an opaque hard-plastic container with three safety latches and added more prominent safety warnings. Kirkland Signature, Costco's private label, implemented similar package improvements. And the American Cleaning Institute, which represents the detergent industry, launched a 2013 campaign to educate consumers about the proper use of liquid pods.

From the industry's perspective, those efforts are paying off, especially in light of pods' growing market share, which is currently around 12 percent. "We are seeing signs that the rate of accidents relative to the number of P&G laundry pacs sold is declining from when they were first were introduced to the marketplace," says Anitra Marsh, P&G's associate director of brand communications.

Manufacturers' injury data (like their proprietary product formulas) are not public information, so we can't confirm P&G's claim. But we believe that 10,000-plus exposures per year are still too many, regardless of market share. In addition to making the decision to not recommend liquid laundry pods, our safety experts have been active participants in the development of a voluntary safety standard for pods led by ASTM International, the global standards-writing organization for a variety of consumer products. "Parents and caregivers deserve a robust standard that makes it as difficult as possible for children to be poisoned by these packets," says Elliot F. Kaye, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The process is ongoing, but the latest draft, released in June, called for several important changes to pods that have already been implemented in Europe, including the addition of a bittering agent to give them a bad taste; a higher "burst strength" to make them more difficult to bite into; and a slower dissolve rate, so they'll be less likely to open in a child's mouth. (As we were going to press, P&G announced that it would be making those changes regardless of the standard's final vote, and Dropps and Sun Products, maker of All and Wisk, said they would add a bittering agent.) During the comment period to the standard's initial draft, we also called for each pod to have an additional individual wrapper, providing another line of defense, but that measure was not adopted.

Members of Congress, including Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., have also weighed in with the introduction of the Detergent PACS (Poisoning and Child Safety) Act of 2015. The bill would require the CPSC to establish safety standards with additional protections. Manufacturers would have to make the design of the pods less attractive by, for example, eliminating their enticing candylike appearance and scent. They'd also have to address the composition of the detergent itself to make the consequences of exposure less severe.

The road ahead

Neither safety measure is a done deal, but experts are optimistic. "I expect the ASTM subcommittee to move swiftly toward a final vote on this standard, which we will monitor closely to gauge its effectiveness," Kaye says. "Should the voluntary standard prove insufficient in protecting children from this toxic hazard, all options to do so will remain on the table."

The same continuous monitoring will determine if and when we'll again recommend laundry detergent pods. The product does have benefits for certain groups of consumers. But until the pods are proved to be as safe as they are effective, they'll have no place on our winners' list.

Finding the pods

Asterisks highlight four laundry detergent pods from popular brands.
Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.


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