Child-proof packaging urged for mouthwashes

April 08, 1993|By Staff writer Sandra Crockett contributed to this article.

Most people wouldn't think mouthwash could be dangerous. "After all," says Dr. Sven Normann, "they put it in their mouths all the time."

Yet nationwide, three children under age 5 have died since 1984 from swallowing mouthwashes that contained high concentrations of alcohol. And nobody knows how many others may have been sickened or permanently injured.

Ethanol-laden mouthwashes, with their bright colors and sweet tastes, are an insidious and potentially lethal attraction for young children who may mistake them for beverages. Just a half-ounce can cause serious illness; 5 ounces can cause death.

The hazardous aspect derives from the high concentration of alcohol -- higher than either beer or wine -- in some of the leading brands: 26.9 percent for Listerine, 16.6 percent for Scope peppermint, 14.5 percent for Signal.

By comparison, beer is 5 percent to 7 percent, wine 10 percent to 14 percent.

Concerned about the possible toxic effects, the attorneys general of 29 states, commonwealths or territories petitioned the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission in February to require child-resistant packaging for mouthwashes containing more than 5 percent alcohol.

Maryland is one of those states.

"Children learn many things by watching their parents, but they may not realize that when Mom and Dad use mouthwash, they spit it out after rinsing," says Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

"And swallowing as little as 1 ounce can have serious side-effects for a child," Mr. Curran says.

Mr. Curran said that until the commission makes a decision on requiring child-resistant packaging for mouthwashes, parents would be well-advised to move any mouthwashes containing alcohol to a place where their child can't reach them.

"These are good products that serve a good purpose in a person's daily hygiene. But mouthwash with alcohol is not harmless if a small child decides to drink it," the attorney general says.

"If children are drinking this or becoming seriously ill, it's incumbent upon [the commission] to take protective action," says Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

It's not a new idea. Ten years ago, an article in a dental journal identified the potential hazard for children and recommended requiring child-resistant packaging.

Since then, three children have died, and reported cases of mouthwash ingestion by youngsters 5 and younger have more than doubled.

Children don't have to drink a lethal amount of mouthwash for death or other serious effects to occur, the attorneys general note in their petition. "Serious injuries and fatalities can occur even at lower doses of ethanol as a result of drug interactions or ethanol-induced hypoglycemia."

Rolf and Ann Fure of Eden Prairie, Minn., know the fears firsthand. A single ounce of a popular mouthwash caused their son to lapse into a coma.

Justin, 23 months old, had slept late one morning, Ann Fure recalls. Finally, she decided it was time to wake her son.

As she put him on a diaper-changing table, she noticed "he was struggling to keep his eyes open. I thought that was really strange."

PD When she lifted him again, he went limp, "like Jell-O." She knew

something was terribly wrong.

L "I ran downstairs and put him on the carpet," Ms. Fure says.

The boy tried to stand but fell over. He tried to sit up but toppled again. Ms. Fure called her pediatrician, then paramedics. The paramedics recognized the cause of the symptoms, which by then included seizures, as poisoning. They quickly searched the house hoping to discover what the child had gotten into. They found nothing.

On the way to the hospital, Justin lapsed into a coma.

At the hospital, Ms. Fure says, "Nurses and doctors just swarmed around him." Justin's blood sugar had gravely plummeted. Alcohol ingestion, the doctors said.

"Has he had alcohol?"

"No," Ms. Fure said.

"Do you have any alcohol in the house?"

"No," she answered again.

"How about mouthwash?"

"Mouthwash? No, we don't use mouthwash," she said, forgetting a sample that had arrived in the mail.

While Ms. Fure was at the hospital, her neighbors scoured her home for clues. In a bathroom wastebasket, they found the trial-size bottle of mouthwash. It was empty.

was green, and there was green on Justin's face and clothes," Ms. Fure says.

The child apparently had downed the mouthwash the night before, his mother says. "It was slowly depleting the sugar in his body and dehydrating him."

Nearly three years later, she recalls the accident with a shudder. She remembers asking the doctors whether her son would recover, whether he would walk again.

"They said they couldn't tell me."

After a shot of glucose, the boy began to rouse. He left the hospital after an overnight stay, but it took a week, his mother says, before he returned to normal.

"It's amazing an ounce could do that to him," Ms. Fure says. Today, she and her husband try to publicize the danger of high-alcohol mouthwashes.

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