A new study underscores the danger that laundry detergent pods posed to preschool children who played with the liquid-filled packets. The study, published today in JAMA Ophthalmology, found that after the plastic-coated pods were introduced in 2012, chemical eye burns in children 3 to 4 years old increased more than 30 times over a four-year period, with the pods accounting for 26 percent of all such eye injuries.

“Most occurred when children punctured or broke a pod and the detergent squirted into their eye, or it got on their hands and they rubbed their eyes,” says R. Sterling Haring, D.O., M.P.H., of Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Prevention, and lead author of the study.  

 “In general, chemical burns to the eye are potentially very serious,” Haring adds. “If the cornea is burned badly enough, it can scar, which is unlikely to heal—and that can lead to long-term vision loss.”

The study does not cover 2016, when the industry adopted more rigorous safety standards. Poison-control centers nationwide received 11,528 reports last year of kids 5 years and younger being exposed to the liquid detergent in pods—by ingesting, inhaling, or absorbing the liquid through their skin or getting it in their eyes. There were 12,594 such reports in 2015.

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Convenience vs. safety concerns. Laundry detergent pods were introduced to give consumers a convenient, single-load application to do their laundry. But the colorful, liquid-filled packets could be mistaken for candy, creating a particular danger for children at a developmental stage when they’re discovering the world through touch and taste.

The detergent in pods is more highly concentrated than other forms, and can have significantly more serious effects, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

After laundry pods hit store shelves in 2012, Consumer Reports began warning parents about the safety risk and called on manufacturers to make them more child-resistant.  

The industry has since agreed to make a number of changes. Many switched from clear to opaque plastic for the outside container to make the colorful pods inside less visible to young children. Some have also made it harder to open the container. The pods themselves are now tougher so they wouldn’t burst as easily when squeezed. And manufacturers have given the outer film a bitter taste to discourage children from ingesting them.

These voluntary standards were put together by a committee that included Consumer Reports' product safety experts. 

“By the end of 2016, more than 99 percent of the volume of liquid laundry packets being shipped to retailers complied with the standard,” says Brian Sansoni, vice president of communication and marketing for the American Cleaning Institute, a trade group that includes detergent manufacturers. “We are very committed to reducing the number of incidents with these products, which are used safely by millions of consumers every day.”

There hasn’t been any study yet of how effective these changes are, but Consumer Reports thinks they could be a step in the right direction. 

"We hope that recent packaging changes will be enough to prevent terrible eye injuries like those the study found,” says William Wallace, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports. “But if they're not, stronger steps to protect kids would be needed,” adds Wallace, who has worked to help make pods safer. 

“More broadly, this study shows just how quickly a safety issue with a new product can harm the most vulnerable among us,” Wallace continues. “We strongly urge all manufacturers to prioritize consumer safety from the start, including when a product is being designed and hasn't yet hit the market.” 

The Johns Hopkins study is based on data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The CPSC epidemiologists have not yet reviewed the study’s findings. “When it comes to any data related to these laundry packs and eye injuries and ingestion, we want to see the numbers trending down,” says Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the government agency. “We want to see if there is a payoff given all the changes that have been made to try and make this product safer.” 

If Detergent Gets in a Child's Eyes

Even with the safety improvements, parents and others with children in the house should make sure to keep laundry pods out of sight and out of reach. But if your child does get the detergent (or any chemical substance) in her eye, here’s what Haring, the lead author of the Johns Hopkins study, recommends:

• Immediately rinse the eye under cool water for 20 minutes. Do not wait until an ambulance arrives. The longer the chemical stays in the eye, the more severe the damage will be. 

• After 20 minutes of rinsing, go to the emergency room or see an ophthalmologist.