In order to make them effective, liquid laundry detergents contain powerful alkaline compounds like sodium hydroxide. While these substances help remove stubborn stains from clothing, they also pose a risk of skin irritation, eye damage, or poisoning if used improperly or ingested.
As far back as 1994, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found it necessary to issue a recall of containers of FAB liquid Color-Plus laundry detergent that did not carry a strong enough warning concerning these risks to consumers.
That recall, found at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/PRHTML95/95019.html, stated in part that the liquid detergent contained “a chemical known as sodium hydroxide, which can cause a skin irritation or injure consumers if ingested or when coming in contact with the eyes.”
Thus, the same harsh chemicals are no less problematic when marketed in individual water soluble packets. In fact, as a report in the current issue of The Lancet demonstrates, the problem may be even more serious when children get their hands on these small, soft
Toddlers can easily mistake these laundry (and dishwashing) products as toys, squeezing them thereby causing them to burst and splash their contents into the eyes where the detergent can cause serious damage to the cornea.
Two products in question are Cascade 2 in 1 ActionPacs by Proctor and Gamble and Electrosol liquid dishwashing detergent. Cascade 2 in 1 ActionPacs contain both powdered and liquid detergents, while Electrosol has liquid detergent in a water soluble capsule. These products are designed to be placed directly into the washing machine or dishwasher.
During a six-month period in 2004, Dr. Neal Horgan of the department of ophthalmology at Children’s University Hospital in Dublin and his colleagues treated six children between 1½ and 3 who sustained eye injuries from these products in the past 6 months.
Fortunately, in all of these cases the children’s eyes were immediately washed thoroughly after the accident thereby limiting the extent of the damage. Nonetheless, four of the children suffered some damage to their corneas (the tissue covering the outer layer of the eye) from chemical abrasion.
The children were hospitalized for two to five days. Luckily, most of them injured only one eye and have recovered without long-term damage.
These types of detergents are especially harmful because they contain alkaline, which can strip cells off the cornea and the conjunctiva (the membrane on the white of the eye and under the eyelid).
This can result in the destruction of stem cells that replenish the surface lining of the cornea and keep it healthy and clear thereby causing cloudy vision and other permanent vision problems.
Considering the substantial hazard posed by these products, Dr. Horgan believes that the packaging should be made childproof. The Irish researchers contacted manufactures because they believe the warning labels are not clear about the severity of injury children can sustain from eye contact. (Note: This was the very same problem cited by the CPSC in its 1994 recall of certain containers of laundry detergent.)
The manufacturers, however, maintain that the warning labels are adequate as they are. Proctor and Gamble already warns consumers that the product should be kept out of reach of children and states that it has had no reports of adverse incidents in Canada related to Cascade product since it was introduced last year.
In the case of Electrosol gel packs, which were introduced in Canada in 2003, no complaints of this nature have been reported according to the manufacturer.
While Dr. Margaret Thompson, head of the Ontario Regional Poison Centre for Toronto, has not encountered any injuries specifically from the gel-pack form of detergent, she points out that this type of accident with cleaning products commonly occurs to curious toddlers while parents are distracted in the laundry room or kitchen.
Poison control experts recommend locking up all cleaning products as opposed to simply putting them on a high shelf. If children do get detergent in their eyes or on their skin, flushing with water for 15 minutes in the shower before going to the emergency room can go a long way toward preventing serious damage.