Poison Centers

Poison Centers in Action: The West Virginia Chemical Spill

As West Virginian residents begin to return to normalcy, after the last water ban was lifted following a chemical spill that threatened major water sources, the West Virginia Poison Center continues its efforts to address the health concerns of the community.

In a recent press conference, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said, “We’ve been in this thing for 11 days. It’s a very complicated issue. I’m not a scientist, you know. I have to rely on the best information that I have.” Tomblin did not guarantee that the drinking water is safe but rather left it up to the individuals. “It’s your decision…if you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking with this water then use bottled water.”

While the chemical spill itself created its own concerns and complications, investigation into the toxicity of the chemical itself created the most confusion. Few answers could be found on the chemical in question and its potential adverse effects in people.

Though the lack of definitive information on about 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that leaked into the river may create its own limitations, Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, director of the West Virginia Poison Center, was confident that the available information, along with the expertise of a team of health care professionals and chemists, allowed for sufficient guidelines for the handling of immediate medical response to the chemical spill.

“When you don’t have specific information about a chemical’s toxicity, you can look at its structure and make some predictions about what could be expected.” said Scharman. “When you don’t have definitive information, you do what is best for public health and that is why the Governor put out a ‘do not use the water’ (except for flushing) order on the evening of January 9th.”

The West Virginia Poison Center collaborated with West Virginia’s state health department, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), chemists, and others to ensure that the best interests for public health were being served.  .

While the unique experience of facing an incident involving a large number of individuals exposed to a large quantity of an unknown compound entering the water system, created its own obstacles, Dr. Scharman and her team of Poison Specialists, like many health care professionals dealing with the chemical spill’s aftermath, were faced with the increased challenge of managing an influx of new cases, maintaining regular daily Poison Center call volume, and effectively determining if those experiencing symptoms were effected by the chemical spill or some other illness – a lofty task during the onset of flu season.

“What the Poison Specialists were doing was to take individual assessments to determine whether the caller or their family member were exposed to the water and if so how (e.g., drank it, bathed in it, brushed their teeth with it), and if they were having symptoms.  If symptoms were not felt to be related to a pre-existing condition or other acute medical illness (in which case, a separate triage plan was followed), management recommendations and other information was provided specific to this water contamination incident.  “Poison Centers are in an ideal position to play this role as they are staffed by health care professionals,” said Dr. Scharman.

A handful of callers were referred to an emergency department by the West Virginia Poison Center. The number referred were a very small percentage of the number of individuals who called the center. Dr. Scharman cautioned that, for those individuals who were admitted to a hospital with a concern for contaminated water exposure, the fact that they were admitted did not mean that their symptoms were determined to be related to the spill.

Dr. Scharman also stated that the substance itself, though somewhat illusive in toxicology reference sources, was not highly toxic.

“We were not expecting that we would have people with severe or harmful effects and this is consistent with the types of calls we evaluated,” she said.

The most common symptoms reported were nausea, diarrhea, or rashes.

Although the water ban has now been lifted, the West Virginia Poison Center continues to answer calls related to the chemical spill.

As a part of that brain trust, the West Virginia Poison Center was front and center when news of the chemical spill broke. Before calls came in regarding specific cases, the poison center had received a call from a reporter on the afternoon of January 9thasking about the chemical after individuals had called the media asking about smelling licorice in the air.  While there hadn’t been any calls from the public at that time, the Poison Center began to research the chemical reported to have been involved in order to prepare itself should calls be received.

“That is part of what poison centers do. We do active surveillance in our communities in real time,” said Dr. Scharman.

When human exposure related calls began pouring in, 2,423 during the main phase of the incident, the poison center was ready.

Poison Specialist Jamie Cook, BSN, MSN, CSPI, who was answering the phones said, “I’ve been here for about three and a half years. This has definitely been the biggest [emergency situation]…We’ve really had to work together as a team. We’ve had to call in Poison Specialists, even those who were out for vacation.”

Cook said that perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of this particular situation was that the public had limited access to water which meant a decline in the ability to use soap and water for cleaning and the potential for some reported symptoms to be more a result of germs than the chemical spill as the duration of the “do not use” order became longer.

Despite the continued challenges of the chemical spill and the subsequent water ban, Cook is confident that the poison center played a crucial role in the health of the community and that the community is now more aware of the center’s role in their safety.

“I think there are people who were not aware that we were here or what we do, that are now,” she said.

As for the public, they’re strong she said, “West Virginians are very tough and very resilient and they’re always helping each other out.”

Poison Centers

The Internet Can Literally Make You Sick

By Debbie Carr, MEd, Director, American Association of Poison Control Centers

Years ago, the use of Ipecac was encouraged to induce vomiting if a poisonous substance was swallowed. Now, with new medical information available, experts actually discourage its use due to the serious dangers associated with its misuse. However, on the Internet, numerous sources still vouch for its effectiveness. In a panic, many people will click on the first seemingly reputable option presented to them. The inaccuracy of that information can actually result in a much more dangerous situation.

Because of the unique and complex nature of poisons, it’s vital that exposures are handled on a case-by- case basis. Factors like weight, height, medical history, and in some cases even geography can drastically change the outcome of an exposure. The Internet may offer a wealth of information, but the experts at local poison centers are the best source for specifically tailored information.

Calls to the Poison Help line at 1-800-222-1222 connect people to specially trained nurses, pharmacists, toxicologists and doctors who are certified in poison information. Poison centers provide free and confidential health care services 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In the event of a poison exposure, every second counts. The longer it takes to sift through pages of search results online, the greater the danger of negative health effects. A mistreated exposure can escalate an easy in-home treatment into a trip to the hospital.

Calling a poison center is like calling a really smart, charismatic, caring family member, minus the judgment and gossip-spreading. The voice on the other end of the line is a medical professional who has undergone years of training and rigorous testing just to qualify to answer your questions. In fact, 20 percent of calls to poison centers are from doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals who are seeking specialized treatment advice that only experts at poison centers can answer.

Calls to the Poison Help line keep millions of people out of the hospital each year. Ninety percent of people who call a poison center are able to be treated at home with the phone support and advice of a poison expert. If immediate medical attention is needed, the expert on the line will send an ambulance and alert the receiving hospital of the incoming patient’s condition and recommend treatment.

While a quick web search may seem like an easy option, it’s no substitute for speaking with medical experts in real-time.

In his timeless wisdom Mark Twain once said, “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” Over 100 years later, during America’s 51st National Poison Prevention Week beginning March 17th 2013; the nation’s 57 poison centers are working hard to save us all from dying of a misprint.

To learn more about the Poison Help line and your local poison center, call 1-800-222-1222 or visit www.aapcc.org.

Debbie Carr is the executive director of the American Association of Poison Control Centers which supports the nation’s 57 poison centers in their efforts to prevent and treat poison exposures.

Poison Centers, Uncategorized

Poison Centers Save Lives – and Taxpayer Dollars

Two excellent articles were published last week about the importance of poison centers and why their funding should be sustained.

In an article published in the November 7 issue of the New York Times, Dr. Perri Klass explains how pediatricians, emergency room doctors and other health-care providers call poison center experts for advice about how to treat their patients who were exposed to poisons. She says, “When a child swallows the wrong thing, pediatricians call the poison center. From the emergency room. From the clinic. In the middle of the night when frantic parents call to say, ‘We found our little boy playing with the bottle of windshield wiper fluid. We don’t know if any of it was in his mouth.’”  Continue reading

Poison Centers

Who You Gonna Call? The Experts!

If my child gets into a chemical or my elderly mother takes too many blood pressure pills, I want to know that the people I turn to for help know what they are talking about. I want the experts!

Image: Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

And guess what? The people who answer calls at your poison control center are just that – experts!

Continue reading

Poison Centers

During an Emergency, Help Is Just a Phone Call Away

Photo by Senior Airman Jesse Lopez via Wikimedia

Emergencies can strike anytime, anywhere. In the past few months, our friends and neighbors across America have experienced a rash of emergencies – flooding in North Dakota, New Jersey and Vermont; a tornado in Joplin, Missouri; an earthquake centered in Virginia; fires in Arizona and Texas, just to name a few. 

Emergencies often are unpredictable. That’s why it’s so important for each of us to be prepared. Continue reading

Poison Centers

On the Frontlines …

Photo courtesy of the Bangor Police Department

Did you know that poison centers often are among the first to identify new health threats?

Take the products marketed as “bath salts,” for example. These products, which have nothing to do with bathing, contain chemicals that seem to mimic cocaine, LSD, MDPV and methamphetamine. People buy them on the Internet and at gas stations and head shops, looking for a “legal” high.

Continue reading

Poison Centers

Hello world!

Welcome to the American Association of Poison Control Centers blog! Please visit often to see what’s happening in the poison prevention world. 

The purpose of this blog is to provide some insight about the important work of the nation’s 57 poison control centers. We will talk about current poison issues, such as bath salts and button batteries, as well as ways you can keep your family

Image: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

safe from poisonings. We’ll also give you a taste of the types of calls poison centers receive.

America’s poison control centers are pretty amazing. They provide free, expert, confidential advice by phone to anyone in the 50 states, Puerto Rico, The Federated States of Micronesia, American Samoa, and Guam. They’ve even served American soldiers serving overseas. And they do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

When you call your local poison center at 1-800-222-1222, you can be assured that the people who take your call know what they are talking about; they are doctors, pharmacists, nurses and poison information experts who specialize in poisons and toxic substances.

Most callers with a poison emergency are helped over the phone and don’t need to go to a hospital or doctor. In fact, more than 70 percent of calls about a potential poisoning are managed over the phone. A free phone call sure beats a hospital bill any day!  

Most of the remaining 30 percent of potential poisoning calls each year are from health-care facilities. When doctors and nurses need help treating poisonings, they call the experts at their poison center. 

Poison centers also help teach the public about poison prevention and the dangers of poisons. Recently, they were the first to raise the alarm about the dangers of toxic substances marketed as bath salts. Plus, you don’t have to have an emergency to call your poison center; you can call 1-800-222-1222 to get information about poisons or poison safety.

So, as you see, the experts at your poison centers are busy folks! With all they do every day to safeguard the health and safety of our families, friends, and neighbors, I’m sure we’ll have a lot to talk about!

Until next time, stay safe and stay healthy!

(To learn more about the AAPCC, click on the ABOUT link at the top of the page.)