Detergent pods an emerging public health hazard, says CDC

Consumer Reports News: October 18, 2012 03:08 PM

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A report released today by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirms what we've known for some time: that exposure to single-use laundry detergent pods is an "emerging public health hazard in the United States," with young children being most vulnerable.

The CDC report is based on an analysis of data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Of the 1,008 laundry detergent exposures reported between May 17 and June 17 of this year, 485 (or 48 percent) involved laundry detergent pods; the rest involved non-pod detergents, such as powders, liquids, bars, and tablets. That's particularly significant given that pods command a relatively small share of the market.

The vast majority of pod exposures involved children aged five or younger. What's more, a minor, moderate, or major medical outcome was noted for 80 percent of pod exposures, compared with 63 percent for non-pod exposures. As the CDC summarized, "a significantly greater proportion of those exposed to laundry detergent from pods had gastrointestinal and respiratory adverse health effects and mental status changes compared with those with non-pod laundry detergent exposures."

Consumer Reports first reported on the dangers of laundry detergent pods in June after we tested seven such products, including Tide Pods, All Mighty Pacs, and Purex Triple Action UltraPacks. At the time, pods had resulted in 700 calls to poison control centers. We now know the number of calls exceeds 3,000.

In Europe, where the pod market is more mature, there has been a longer history of exposures. For example, a recent study in the United Kingdom found that exposures to pods now represent the highest percentage of all household cleaning product exposures.

Today's CDC report observes that "children might be attracted to pods because their colorful appearance and size are similar to candy." Case in point: the Tide Pods we tested feature blue and orange swirls not unlike what's seen on many gummy candies. Because the data has not been made public, it is impossible to know which brands are causing the most exposures. We have submitted a formal request to the government to obtain that information.

The CDC also notes that the largest manufacturer of laundry detergent pods in the U.S., Procter & Gamble, has added a double-latch lid safety feature to its hard plastic Tide Pods container. Though the new containers started shipping in July, some of the original containers without the safety latch are still on store shelves. A P&G spokesperson told Consumer Reports that there's a "time lag that normally happens with distribution" and that "it will take a little while longer until all the product with the single latch is totally replaced with the double latch lid." We encourage P&G to expedite distribution of the new containers. We also think P&G should consider moving to an opaque container, which could prove less enticing to small children.

Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports, said that "the CDC report shines a spotlight on a serious problem. These pods may look like candy, but they're toxic, and we're seeing more reports of young children being harmed. In some cases, kids have been placed on ventilators or had surgery to treat swelling and ulceration injuries."

Last month, Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, wrote the Consumer Product Safety Commission a letter to urge the agency to consider regulations to require adequate child-safe packaging, as well as prominent warning labels, for pods. We will continue to put pressure on manufacturers as well to introduce safer containers. In the meantime, if you choose to use laundry detergent pods—or those designed for dishwashers—it is essential that you keep the pods out of the reach of children. And if your child does ingest a pod, call the poison-control helpline immediately at 800-222-1222, since serious effects can happen very quickly.

Daniel DiClerico

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