In the United States, help for a poisoning emergency is a toll-free phone call away. In 2021, someone in the United States called a Poison Control center every 15 seconds. In 2021, 55 U.S. Poison Centers responded to over 2 million human poisonings. Over 90% of poisonings occurred at home, 75% were unintentional, and 41% involved children 5 years of age or younger.
Before a national toll-free phone number was established, poison control centers used local telephone numbers plus a state or region-wide toll-free phone number. In 2002, a national toll-free hotline was introduced, connecting callers to the nearest poison center. That same phone number is used today: 1-800-222-1222.
When working the night shift at my local hospital in the early 1980s, one of my responsibilities was answering the red poison control phone (yes, it really was red ). The phone sat inside a small glassed-in booth in our basement-level pharmacy. During the week, a trained information specialist handled incoming calls and did poison prevention outreach. After 5 p.m., the emergency room staff answered incoming calls during evening hours. At 11 p.m., the phone was switched back to the red phone in the pharmacy, and the night shift pharmacist answered it.
The pharmacists answering the phone were trained to identify the source of the exposure and look up the instructions required for managing the event. Responsible for collecting information on each call, we documented the needed details on a “bubble sheet” scanned into a national database, much like a mail-in voting ballot.
Back then, a microfiche reader helped us find the information needed to rapidly identify the offending substance and instruct callers on the most appropriate treatment. Rapid access to this vital information helped prevent additional and more expensive care at a hospital or urgent care center. Today's Poison Centers access this essential data online.
According to a report by the Lewin Group to determine the value of poison control services, every $1 spent on poison center services saves approximately $13 by decreasing direct medical costs from avoiding a visit to the ER, having a shorter stay in the hospital, or experiencing fewer lost workdays.
Every year, the third week of March is National Poison Prevention Week, one of the longest continuous health and safety programs in the United States. It’s also one of the most cost-effective: today’s 55 poison centers around the country save over $1.8 billion yearly in reduced direct medical costs, lost work, and productivity.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, poisoning is the leading cause of unintentional injury-related deaths and the third leading cause of unintended hospitalizations.
In 1992, Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital was one of 4 hospitals in Washington State hosting a poison center, with St. Luke’s Hospital in Spokane, Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma, and Children’s Hospital in Seattle as the other Poison centers. Due to funding issues, later that year, the Washington State legislature voted to consolidate the 4 centers into one, and by 1995 the transition to the current Washington Poison Center was complete.
Many Poison centers were initially established to inform and support pediatricians and emergency room physicians faced with child poisonings, such as swallowing a toxic household chemical or prescription medication.
One of the most visible campaigns to warn children about dangerous substances is the lime green face of Mr. Yuk.
Mr. Yuk was created in 1971 by the Pittsburgh Poison Center, based at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. In the early 1970s, the Poison Center wanted to use a symbol to warn children of dangerous substances that should NOT be eaten.
For adults, a skull and crossbones are warning symbols. But most children see a skull over an "X" made up of crossed bones and think about pirates and adventure. Several professional sports teams even use a skull and crossbones for their logo.
The Pittsburgh Poison Center sought a symbol that would make a child not want to play or interact with the container it was attached to. They showed 3 different characters to groups of young children: a red stop sign, a black skull and crossbones, and a green frowning circular face.
The children weren’t scared off by the skull with the crossed bones or by the red stop sign. They DID avoid playing with the container with a green frowning face. When asked why, one child said it looked “Yukky," and Mr. Yuk was born.
In 1973, the Poison Center at Children’s Hospital in Seattle was the first outside of Pittsburgh to adopt Mr. Yuk as its poison warning symbol.
Dr. Louise Achey, Doctor of Pharmacy, is a 44-year veteran of pharmacology and author of Why Dogs Can’t Eat Chocolate: How Medicines Work and How YOU Can Take Them Safely. Get clear answers to your medication questions at her website and blog, TheMedicationInsider.com. Ó2023 Louise Achey
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