A phone call to center can ease minds about poison

March 22, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd

THE PLACE has all the charm of an insurance agency: gray cubicles with your standard computer-and-telephone set-up, file cabinets and the kind of loud, sea-green carpeting that screams end-of-the-year sale at Fred's Carpet Mart.

Not until you notice the Mr. Yuck stickers affixed to the phones and the research tomes in the overhead cabinets - Toxic and Hallucinogenic Mushroom Poisoning, Venomous and Poisonous Marine Animals, Chemical and Biological Warfare: An Annotated Bibliography - is it clear no one's about to give you a sweaty handshake and an eye-glazing discourse on the benefits of whole-life vs. term policies.

Actually, this is the Maryland Poison Center, which is in the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy on North Pine Street downtown.

Understand, I am not normally in the habit of visiting poison centers, although there are certainly times when I drink the coffee at The Sun and wonder if this is the one that makes the lights go out for good.

But this is National Poison Prevention Week - yes, there is now officially a week for every possible affliction, disease, behavioral flaw, etc. - and I am visiting with Bruce Anderson, director of operations.

Basically, the poison center's mission is to provide emergency triage and treatment information over the phone for victims of poisoning.

You would think in this age of information overload, with labels and warnings and Mr. Yuck stickers on every product known to man, that poisoning concerns have lessened. But you'd be wrong.

Last year, the center fielded more than 61,000 calls - 150 to 200 a day. Half the calls involved children under the age of 6.

The center's staff of 10 pharmacists and nurses, all of them experts in clinical toxicology, handles calls involving everything from toddlers biting off the tip of mercury-containing thermometers to gardeners getting pesticide in their eyes, from drug overdoses to suicide attempts using toxic substances.

Most calls, though, are routine, if at first scary for parents: little Johnny gets into the bleach and takes a sip. (Anderson says yes, bleach is dangerous in large amounts, but kids usually just throw it up, and will be fine.) Dad is horrified to discover that little Janie has been chewing on a few leaves from a houseplant. (Anderson says few houseplants are dangerous to kids.)

Still it's better to be safe than sorry. Here's the number for all poison questions: 800-222-1222.

Although he and his staff take each call very seriously, Anderson also seems to see the lighter side of what he terms "the more challenging situations."

For instance, there was the guy who called a couple of years ago who was bitten while feeding his pet Gabon viper, which is only one of the most poisonous snakes in the world.

Oh, and adding to the excitement: the guy was drunk.

I know, I know ... doesn't everyone get boozed up and decide to feed dangerous snakes in the middle of the night?

"Well, he had called 911 already," Anderson laughs now.

Anyway, while the guy was being taken away by ambulance, the poison center arranged to have anti-venom from the National Zoo in Washington and the Philadelphia Zoo transported to the man's hospital.

Then there was the time a man called with this question: how much ipecac do you give a horse to make him throw up?

Well. It turned out the man's thoroughbred horse had eaten rat poison in the barn.

In any event, the answer to the man's question was not, as one would suspect: more than a couple of tablespoons.

Instead, the answer was: don't waste your time with ipecac.

"There are a lot of animals that don't throw up," says Anderson, "horses are one of them."

The staff assured the man his horse would be OK, mainly because the animal was big enough to handle a little rat poison in his system.

Besides the occasional exotic call, the center will also get calls from people who are, well, lunatics.

"Sometimes people will call up just to talk, or will make up stories," says Anderson diplomatically.

Like the time a man called up to explain that he had just taken a shower and toweled off, and was now worried about ingesting lint from the towel.

"Or they're obsessive callers," continues Anderson. "They'll call up and ask about a particular poison. Then they'll [get an answer and] hang up. Then they'll call back right away and say, `Are you sure?' Or they'll say, `Can I speak to another [staffer]?'"

And sometimes when they're not crazy or obsessive, the callers are just - there's no other way to put this - dumb.

During the time of the 2001 anthrax attacks, for instance, the poison center got calls from people concerned about finding a powdery white substance on their kitchen tables.

Invariably, after some gentle probing by the center's staffers, it would become clear that the caller had had a powdered sugar donut for breakfast.

And that he probably should have called Krispy Kreme first.

You just hope the center doesn't get those calls this week.

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