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Poison Primer: UW Health Children's Program Tackles Household Dangers

Young girlMADISON - Amid the colorful bustle of a classroom full of fidgeting children, finger paintings of rainbows, and construction paper frogs dangling from the ceiling, 5-year-old Elizabeth is thinking hard about what to do with the picture of red pills she grasps in her tiny hands.
 
Should she put the pills under the "yucky" green face that symbolizes poison with its ominous frown and hanging red tongue? Or should she place the pills under the smiling yellow face, which represents things that aren't harmful?
 
As the little girl squints her eyes and wavers, UW Health Poison Education Coordinator Donna Lotzer gently prompts Elizabeth to think about the pills, to which the little girl initially attaches a positive connotation by calling them "medicine."
 
"But if you find a bottle of medicine on the table, would you take it by yourself?" Lotzer asks.
 
"I wouldn't!" Elizabeth decides before placing the pills in the poisonous category.
 
Lotzer explains to the group of 5- to 7-year-olds that pills and vitamins aren't always bad for kids, but they aren't harmless like the Oreo cookies and the Ritz crackers listed under the smiling yellow face.
 
"Pills are good if an adult gives them to you," Lotzer says to the kids, who nod in agreement. "But you don't want to take them on your own."
 
Lotzer's presentation is one of many programs the UW Health poison education coordinator holds at area schools to teach children about the perils of common household items. Her presentations include "Poison Bingo," which uses a game card filled with bright pictures of everything from jugs of antifreeze and weed killer to mugs of beer.
 
In a state in which an average of 115 calls a day are placed to the Wisconsin Poison Center hotline - half of which pertain to poison exposures for children under 6 years old - Lotzer says it's never too early for children to learn about potential poisons.
 
"They're the ones that are hardest to reach because they can't read. They don't necessarily have a long memory if somebody tells them no," Lotzer said. "And yet at the same time, they're curious. They want to check out everything by tasting it and touching it."
 
"And that makes it very easy for them to get into potential poisons," she added.
 
Lotzer said a concerted effort is under way throughout the state to promote awareness that poisonings can and do occur. In 2011 there were 41,816 exposure calls to the Wisconsin Poison Center, with 4,517 calls coming from Dane County.
 
About 93% of all poison exposures happened in a residence, making it apparent that adults also need to know more about potential poisoning hazards, Lotzer said.
 
"We try to alert parents and other caregivers to locations where a poisoning can occur so they can take preventative measures," Lotzer said.
 
Such measures include taking an inventory of the home to find items that children might be able to get into, through curiosity and even a little youthful ingenuity.
 
"A youngster can climb up the drawers in the kitchen to get to a countertop and get into a bottle of medicine that maybe nobody thought they could get into," Lotzer said.
 
Tips for parents include putting safety latches on cabinets and capping cleaners and medicine with child-resistant safety closures. If you're cleaning the house, it's also a good idea to take the cleaning products with you if you have to answer the phone or go to the door, Lotzer said.
 
If children do gain access to potentially harmful poisons, Lotzer advises immediately calling the Wisconsin Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. The line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with trained poison information specialists available to take information on the situation and assess if any action is needed.
 
Questions regarding potential plant or medicine toxicity and other poison-related issues are also answered on the hotline.
 
"Don't wait. Immediately call," Lotzer said. "Ask for advice and let the professionals there handle the call."

Date Published: 05/12/2012


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