Why gel washing capsules are so dangerous for children

Parents are being urged to put all gel washing detergents well out of children’s reach as the number of accidental poisonings rises

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To a small child, gel or liquid washing detergent capsules look a lot like sweets or teethers – all soft, shiny, squidgy and brightly coloured. But if you swallow one, bite into one or even pop it in your hands, you risk poisoning or serious burns to the skin, eyes and throat.

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It’s thought over 100 children a year are taken to hospital after biting or swallowing gel capsules used in washing machines and dishwashers. That’s why all of us parents should avoid leaving detergent capsules under the sink or anywhere else within a child’s reach, the Child Accident Prevention Trust (CAPT) has warned.

The gels contain concentrated liquid with high levels of chemicals, which are highly hazardous to children, yet few are sold in child-resistant boxes and many of us still underestimate the dangers. 

“We’re worried because inquisitive toddlers can get into the boxes relatively easily and do find the capsules attractive,” says Katrina Phillips, CAPT’s chief executive of the Trust. “If toddlers then bite into the capsules, the concentrated chemicals can be harmful.”

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To give you an idea of how hazardous these capsules can be, take the case of 17-month-old toddler Jenny Maher. She nearly died after finding some Surf gel capsules under the kitchen sink at home, biting into one and swallowing the liquid.

Soon after, she vomited and when her breathing became more and more distressed, her mum rushed her to A&E at their local hospital.

“It happened in a matter of seconds,” Jenny’s mum told the Irish Mirror. “It was her reaction to the chemicals in the product that caused her airways to swell. If she had got it in her eyes, it would have been worse.” 

Little Jenny spent a week in intensive care unit, sedated and was on nine different medications, including morphine, a relaxant, steroids, antibiotics and a drip. 

A spokesman for Surf manufacturers Unilever spoke to the Irish Mirror after Jenny Maher’s case: “We are extremely concerned about this incident and are very glad to hear that Jenny has recovered.

“Safety is our number one priority and we are committed to minimising the risk of accidents involving detergent capsules through measures such as fitting boxes with specific closure systems, making the packaging less appealing to children and adding a bitter substance to limit ingestion.

“It is also essential that parents keep such products out of the reach of children and to support this we are taking part in the Keep Caps From Kids campaign and have made the on-pack safety information very prominent.”

The problem arises when the detergent capsule breaks, and it releases a harmful alkaline solution – which can cause scarring or potentially blindness if it gets into your child’s eye.

Melanie Corbett, an ophthalmologist at the Western Eye Hospital, believes more needs to be done to raise awareness of the dangers. “Parents must keep liquid detergent capsules out of children’s reach – their contents can cause irreversible damage to the eye,” she reported in the British Medical Journal. “If any chemical enters your child’s eye, you should wash it out immediately, with large quantities of water.”

And now a word from the MFMers…

You lot aren’t backward in coming forward, so we thought it time we gave your voices a chance to be heard… 

Trendy Wendy 2 says: “Hmmmm it’s all about common sense if you ask me! You wouldn’t leave a bottle of bleach lying around, but washing gel tablets you do? Good to know the stats and all, but if people used their heads more, these accidents wouldn’t happen!”

Youngmummy says: “This is what high cupboards are for! I use the child catches on low cupboards but at 9mths my daughter could pull so hard she broke them – now have a gate across the kitchen door to slow her down but she’s now 2 and can open it if given long enough. I always think if anything that looks squashy and interesting to them on TV adverts is not entering my house – sticking to the boring powder!”

And x.Laura.x has the last word with: “Powder in my house too – worst that’s happened there was Jack emptying one of the mega 100+ wash boxes and building castles in it!”

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