Poison or Coke?

I’m looking at a paper written by some of my colleagues at the NZ National Poison Centre a few years back. This is an important topic for everyone to be aware of: Poisoning following exposure to chemicals stored in mislabelled or unlabelled containers: a recipe for potential disaster, by Yvette C Millard, Robin J Slaughter, Lucy M Shieffelbien, Leo J Schep; New Zealand Medical Journal 26th September 2014, Volume 127 Number 1403.

The problem

Every year people are accidentally poisoned due to hazardous substances being stored in the wrong containers or not being labelled properly. Often the substance is drunk from a bottle that is usually used for drink, such as soft drink, water, sports drink or milk bottles.

Who is at risk?

All age groups are at risk of poisoning in this way, but it is a particularly common way for adults to swallow nasty liquids by mistake. A common scenario is when the driver of a vehicle reaches for a drink bottle and inadvertently picks up a similar bottle containing oil, petrol or even antifreeze. Children are vulnerable because they associate the style of a food container with something they can eat or drink so are unaware of what it really contains.

How serious is this?

The consequences of this type of mistake can be fatal. There have been cases of people drinking paraquat by mistake because it had been kept in a drink bottle and this is almost inevitably fatal. Fortunately, most of the cases covered in by this study were unpleasant but not especially toxic.

Types of chemicals involved

Dishwashing liquid is very commonly stored in the wrong bottles. Petrol, diesel, two-stroke mix are also common culprits. Antifreeze, brake fluids, bleach, mineral turpentine, herbicides, methylated spirits, paint thinners, household cleaners all make the list. None of these are pleasant if you were expecting a refreshing drink of water or Gatorade.

It is illegal to store poisons in food containers

New Zealand food safety regulations explicitly prohibit storing chemicals or “any substance that could cause poisoning” in food containers, whether labelled or not. Yet still people do it. What I noticed in my time at the Poisons Centre is that this practise is surprisingly common in male-dominated workplaces (the list of chemicals involved backs this up). Maybe people think nobody is going to drink from a bottle on the shelf in the workshop anyway, or perhaps there is too much of a, “she’ll be right” attitude?

I do know that it shook all of us who were at work the day a call came through from a young man who had accidentally swallowed a mouthful of what turned out to be paraquat that was stored in a Coke bottle. We all knew his chances of surviving were not good.

ALWAYS KEEP POISONS IN THEIR ORIGINAL CONTAINERS!!

(No apologies for shouting.)