Speakeasy Science

National Poison Prevention Week

Let me begin with a confession: until I researched and wrote a book about poisons, The Poisoner’s Handbook, I never paid too much attention to National Poison Prevention Week.

Like most of us, I was just too comfortable with our chemical culture, the toxic compounds that we use daily to clean our sinks and counters, polish our furniture and our fingernails, keep our cars running. We depend on these compounds and we live with them daily, never fully considering that we’ve turned ourselves into guinea pigs, test cases for chemical exposure.

They worried about this more acutely in the 1920s and 1930s, when industrial chemistry was new and powerful and often terrifying. One of my favorite books from times is called 100 Million Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Food, Drugs and Cosmetics. A best seller at the time, it argued for greater regulation and warned that consumers remained unaware of just how risky their lives had become.

Today, you might consider us a nation of 300 million plus guinea pigs. And although regulation has improved, we definitely need a continuing education course in protecting ourselves. And this is why National Poison Prevention Week (now through Saturday) is so important. It’s a strong dose of a reminder that we’re still surrounded by poisons and that they’re still making us sick, and even killing us, in alarming numbers.

Here are the statistics from the most recent data analysis by the American Association of Poison Control Centers in 2008: There were 2,491,049 human exposure cases. More than 90 percent of those poison exposure occurred at a residence. More than 2 million were accidental exposures. (The rest included suicides, drug overdoses, homicides, and what the centers call “malicious” tamperings.)

Although we tend to think of poisons as the lethal mixtures  popular in murder mysteries – cyanide and arsenic – the compounds that lead to these millions of calls, tens of thousands of hospitalizations, and several thousand deaths a year – are primarily cosmetics (yes, children drink everything from perfume to nail polish), household cleaners, and over -the-counter pain killers. As poison prevention experts remind us, keep all of these out of the reach of children. And never tell a child that a pill is “really just a kind of candy” to encourage her to take the medicine.

Do me a favor. Think chemistry the next time you pick up an abrasive cleaner (which often contains poisonous chlorine). Think chemistry the next time you leave a bottle of perfume (containing poisonous alcohol) in easy reach. Think chemistry when you decide that it’s too much trouble to install a carbon monoxide detector in your house.

And ask yourself if you really want to be one of those 300 million guinea pigs.