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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 21st March 2012

In the USA, this is National Poison Prevention Week. This is one of those times when there is a real difference between spoken and written English. If I told you it is poison prevention week you wouldn’t realise that I meant it is Poison Prevention Week.

Because, of course, every week ought to be poison prevention week. “Mum, the baby’s eating your lipstick.” “Leave him alone, poison prevention week was last week.”

In the UK, these sorts of ‘weeks’ tend have a commercial underpinning. Some trade association will decide that it is Spring Cleaning Week so that its members have a chance of getting some free media to promote their floor mops and feather dusters. But, surprisingly for the seat of the free market, the USA, National Poison Prevention Week (NPPW) is not intended to boost the sales of ipecac. Fifty years ago, the US congress passed a law saying that there must be a NPPW every year.

That means 18-24 March 2012 is not just NPPW, it is also the golden jubilee of National Poison Prevention Week.

Though it would be nice if every week were poison prevention week, I can see the benefit of capitalising one week in the year as the media is more likely to print stories about poisons during that time meaning that simple measures to avoid harm are repeated at least once a year.

Given that this is the chance to get some important safety information to the public I thought I’d look at a selection of the many stories appearing in the American media to see how good a job they are doing. Overall, I found the coverage rather confusing. The thrust of the campaign is about reducing the number of accidental poisonings, particularly of children, and raising awareness of the role of Poison Control Centers(PCC). Many of the reports, however, use statistics for total 'drug poisoning deaths', including intentional overdoses, rather than than figures related to PCC calls.

I don’t know which US federal government department has responsibility for poison control centres but the Environmental Protection Agency issued a press release to mark the event. It focuses attention on cleaning products, pesticides and cosmetics and makes the excellent point that accidents can happen if an adult gets their attention diverted part way through a job and leaves a harmful substance available to a child. That reminded me of the incident involving Laburnum when a father, cutting down a tree to protect his 3-year old daughter went into the house to answer the phone leaving the seedpods of the felled tree within easy reach of the child.

Though the EPA release is accurate and useful, I’m not sure the same can be said for a paper from a region in Pennsylvania. The Lehigh Valley News begins its report with ‘Here's a startling statistic for you: Every five hours someone in Pennsylvania dies from poisoning’. That is a pretty startling statistic because that would be 1,752 deaths a year but The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) 2010 Annual Report only lists 1,366 deaths for the whole of the USA. The Lehigh Valley News is one of those taking its death figures from somewhere other than incidents dealt with by Poison Control Centers.

The International Business Times is one of the few to note that within NPPW each day is separately themed. So, today is ‘Take Your Medicines Safely’ day and the week ends with ’50 Ways to Prevent Poisoning’ day. I wonder if someone has written new words to Paul Simon’s song.

The California Poison Control System issued a press release, here carried by Yahoo News that does its best to use up to date communication methods with video clips, a Twitter account and the chance to sign up for weekly text messages.

EHS Today', 'the magazine for Environment, Health and Safety leaders’ talks about 87 poisoning deaths a day. This figure is based on a National Center for Health Statistics ‘Data Brief’ that reports 36,500 poisoning deaths in the USA in 2008. Again, this includes overdose deaths from both prescribed and illegal drugs and, to me, is a different subject from trying to prevent people, especially children, getting poisoned because they think a bottle of pesticide is a soft drink.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is linked to in some of the stories and it has a page on how to ‘Prevent Unintentional Poisoning’. This quotes 31,758 deaths in 2009 and says 91% of them were the result of drug overdoses. As a result, it first gives advice about how to avoid overdose for the person prescribed  the medication before going on to issues to do with preventing children accessing poisons.

Not all the messages about NPPW are entirely altruistic. The AAPCC itself issued a press release, here picked up by Yahoo News, where the potential threat to PCCs from budget cuts was given as much prominence as the messages about avoiding poisoning.

I said at the start that, in the UK, themed weeks are mostly commercially driven and the NPPW is not completely free of attempts at corporate exploitation. I saw one article, which I won’t link to because that is to help the company concerned, where a pet insurance company was touting the information services it offers its client to help them keep their animals safe.