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Products that resemble foods and appeal to children Potential risks of accidental ingestion

6. Conclusion

  • 6.1 What characteristics increase the probability of confusing a product with food?
  • 6.2 What are the most common effects observed when those products are ingested?
  • 6.3 What product ingredients could harm health when swallowed?
  • 6.4 What circumstances increase the risk of serious poisoning?

6.1 What characteristics increase the probability of confusing a product with food?

Cosmetics and household products can be confused with food if they are shaped like food, or have a colour, smell, taste or packaging that make them resemble food.

Whether or not a product is appealing to children is very subjective. Children can be attracted by nearly anything within their reach depending on many factors such as what else there is in their surroundings or how inquisitive they are. Research shows that children have a preference for sweet, fatty and fruity tastes and odours but there is no evidence that children like products of a particular colour, shape or consistency. Children also prefer product packages that display familiar cartoon or other characters from TV or books but product labels or warnings do not seem to have an effect on children up to 6 years old.

There are no studies that test whether or not products that could be mistaken food or are appealing to children, are more likely to be ingested by accident than those which do not. However, until there is more research available, the characteristics of a product can be used to estimate how child-appealing it might be. For instance, a product that is shaped like food, smells and tastes sweet and displays familiar cartoon characters in vivid colours in its packaging, is more likely to appeal to children and be confused with food, than a product that is just shaped like food and tastes sweet. More...

6.2 What are the most common effects observed when those products are ingested?

The vast majority of accidental poisonings in children involving household consumer products cause no direct symptoms. Drinking these products is likely to cause stomach irritation but the effect is often very mild so cases are probably under-reported. The most common symptoms for children admitted to hospital after accidental poisonings are vomiting, abdominal pain, reduced consciousness, seizures and lack of coordination. Rashes, coughs and difficulty breathing and swallowing have also been observed. The death rate from these incidents is extremely low.

The contents of the stomach are very acidic so the lung tissue can be temporarily damaged if the child gets sick and some of the vomit enters the lungs. If the product swallowed is corrosive or if it contains surfactants or emulsifiers, the damage can be more severe and lasting. Aromatic oils can have the same effect as they are more likely to be breathed in rather than swallowed.

Elderly people show the same symptoms as children but if they have underlying medical problems they can suffer worse health effects and there have been some fatalities.

It would be useful if poison centres recorded how accidents happened to identify future trends and to evaluate the impact of any prevention and management measures. More...

6.3 What product ingredients could harm health when swallowed?

The common household cleaning products most frequently cited in poisonings are dishwashing and laundry detergents, toilet cleaners and bleaches.

The most harmful ingredients are corrosive substances (such as sodium hypochlorite, sodium hydroxide or hydrogen peroxide), surfactants, alcohols and glycerols, and some essential oils (pine oil, wintergreen oil and camphor). Swallowing these will cause different levels of injury depending on how long they are in contact with tissue, their concentration and their pH. Acid products with a very low pH are very corrosive, and alkaline products with a very high pH such as drain cleaners, are also very harmful.

The viscosity of the product is also important. Acidic ingredients with low viscosity can harm the digestive tract. Thick, alkaline liquids, can foam and cause gagging which increases the risk of them being aspirated into the lungs and causing additional damage.

Other ingredients such as colorants, polymers and plasticizers are also harmful and swallowing them accidentally can cause gastric upset, feelings of nausea and vomiting. More...

6.4 What circumstances increase the risk of serious poisoning?

There is very little research on the causes of accidental ingestions in young children and there are no specific data on whether or not products that resemble food or appeal to children are more often involved in poisonings.

The risk of suffering injuries in the home is higher for children living in families of low socio-economic status, as unsafe childcare practices and hazards are more common in these families, but there are risks of accidents in all homes.

Reduced supervision of children and lack of awareness about potential risks may increase the risk of accidental poisoning but there is very little direct evidence linking these factors to child injury.

Elderly people who accidentally ingest cosmetics and household products usually come to no lasting harm unless the product is very toxic or the amounts swallowed are large, but this is rare. There is little research on what makes elderly people more likely to be poisoned accidentally but possible factors are reduced senses of taste and smell, disorientation, impaired vision and lack of supervision or help. More...

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