Bath Salts and Beyond: Poison Centers Save Lives

Bath salts, synthetic marijuana and laundry detergent pods may pose poisoning risks

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) From bath salts to laundry pods, many items can pose poisoning risks. Calls to poison control centers around the US have not only saved many people's lives, they've also identified new trends in toxic substance exposure.

A new report from the National Poison Control Center found that poisonings from prescription medications were the No. 1 cause of injury fatality in the US in 2012. This report highlighted the Poison Control Center’s role in identifying emerging types of poisonings from bath salts, synthetic marijuana and laundry detergent pods.

The poison center system in the US is composed of 55 poison centers that provide advice on how to respond to poisoning. In many cases, these centers provide on-the-spot advice that can spare a poisoning victim a trip to the emergency room. These centers also collect important data on poisonings that can help ER doctors.

“Poisoning continues to be a significant cause of injury and death in the United States,” said lead study author Richard C. Dart, MD, PhD, of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver, in a press release. “The near real-time responsiveness of the National Poison Data System [NPDS] helps emergency physicians respond to new poisoning threats, while also assisting patients who call for help to know when they need the ER and when they can manage things safely at home.”

Patients who may have been exposed to a poisonous substance should contact a poison control center and seek care immediately.

More than 8 out of 10 fatal poisonings in 2012 were tied to a pharmaceutical product. Dr. Dart and team found that opioids (a type of pain reliever) were some of the most abused types of medications. Methadone was the leading fatal opioid. Other opioids that have proven life-threatening when not used correctly include oxycodone, morphine and acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol).

Antidepressants and heart medications were also listed among the top life-threatening pharmaceutical products.

“Bupropion [an antidepressant] is a common overdose agent and is also associated with a substantial number of deaths,” Dr. Dart and colleagues wrote.

Carbon monoxide was the most dangerous non-pharmaceutical agent, this study found.

Laundry detergent pods have proven to be a new and “unexpected” danger to children. A study from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in November also deemed these pods a growing problem among children younger than 6. Laundry detergent pods are small, colorful, and may look like candy or juice to a young child. While the effects of these pods are harmful, they are generally not fatal.

Bath salts have triggered thousands of calls to poison centers across the US in recent years. These are new type of amphetamine with a name that can be misleading. Bath salts are synthetic drugs made in a lab and have nothing to do with bathing. They go by names like Plant Food, Ivory Wave, Purple Wave, Vanilla Sky and Bliss. They are called "bath salts" and labeled “not for human consumption” to mask their intended purpose and avoid US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory oversight, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Synthetic marijuana, sometimes called spice, was also identified as a new drug that has led to many poisonings. Like bath salts, these products are sold at gas stations, convenience stores, head shops and on the Internet, Dr. Dart and team wrote.

Overall, poison centers recorded 2.2 million exposures to poison in 2012. Often, these centers have been able to manage poisoning events without sending patients to a health care center like an ER. These referrals increased with a patient’s age. For instance, of those who contacted the poison centers, 11.6 percent of children younger than 5 were referred to a health care center. Meanwhile, 37.9 percent of adults were treated in a health care center for poisonings.

A poison center can be reached through a national toll-free number: 1 (800) 222-1222.

This paper was published online Dec. 15 in Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Dr. Dart received funds from McNeil Consumer Health Care. The authors disclosed no other funding sources.


Review Date: 
December 19, 2014
Last Updated:
March 12, 2015