Laundry detergent pods are increasingly contributing to eye injuries among preschoolers, indicates a U.S. study that also gives injury prevention recommendations.

The pods are often brightly coloured pouches that resemble candy and contain enough laundry detergent for a single use.

Previous injuries associated with the use of the products include poisoning, choking and burns.

In Canada, more than 100 cases have been reported in pediatric emergency departments between 2012 and 2015, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society.

Now, U.S. researchers have analyzed reports of emergency department visits for eye injuries resulting in chemical burn or conjunctivitis (inflammation commonly known as pink eye).

R. Sterling Haring of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and his colleagues focused on injuries among children three to four years old that were sustained between 2010 and 2015. There was a total of 1,201 laundry detergent pod-related ocular burns, the researchers said in a letter published online on Thursday in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology.

The number of chemical burns associated with laundry detergent pods increased from 12 instances in 2012 to 480 in 2015.

"If I could tell parents anything, it would be first keep these away from your kids. They are not toys. They are not to be played with," Haring said in an interview. 

"Second, if your child happens to get some of these chemicals in their eye, the first and most important thing to do is go to the sink and rinse that eye under cool water for 20 minutes."

Prevention tips

Pods were associated with more than one-quarter, 26 per cent, of chemical burns to the eye among the children studied.

Haring said that since the front of the eye doesn't get a lot of blood flow, it doesn't heal easily, and scars that form there can be long term and even permanent.

Laundry detergent pods

The laundry detergent industry has taken steps to try to reduce how attractive pods are to young kids, a researcher says. (Melanie Glanz/CBC)

Children tended to be injured when the contents squirted into one or both eyes, or the gel leaked onto the hands and then the eyes were rubbed. 

Sandra Maio's son, Ethan, is just starting to walk. The Toronto mother normally uses liquid detergent.

"He definitely likes to squeeze everything that he gets his hands on," Maio said. "They're curious beings and they really want to research everything about it, so they turn it around, they squeeze it." 

The authors said that, aside from storing the devices up and away from children and using them properly, "prevention strategies might include redesigning packaging to reduce the attractiveness of these products to young children and improving their strength and durability."

To prevent unintended exposure to the toxic chemicals in the packets, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website recommends steps including: 

  1.  Do not let children handle the laundry packets.
  2.  Keep the liquid laundry packets sealed in their original packaging, and make sure they are locked up and out of a child's sight and reach.
  3. Ensure your hands are dry before using a laundry packet/capsule, and wash and dry your hands thoroughly after each use.

If the chemicals are swallowed or exposed to the eye, call a poison control centre immediately, the commission said.

If swallowed, rinse as much detergent as possible from the mouth. 

Some laundry detergent makers have taken steps to deter young children from accessing the packets, Haring said. "It has yet to be seen what the next steps are going to be."

In 2016, researchers at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children found there were 75 detergent-exposure cases between 2009 and 2014 in Canada. Of these, 40 cases were associated with pods and 35 with traditional detergent exposures.

"I think what we're talking about is the tip of the iceberg," said Dr. Jonathon Maguire, a pediatrician and researcher at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. "It's quite likely there are many, many more children who are injured but not so severely to come to the attention of these injury surveillance programs."

The injuries are entirely preventable, Maguire said.

"I think we shouldn't bring these into our house. The old-fashioned scoop technique wasn't so difficult," he said.

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