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Exercise care to prevent intoxications in the home and hobby sphere!

07/2005, 21.02.2005

Physicians’ notifications of accidents involving chemicals provide important information on risk protection

No matter whether household cleaning products, hobby or DIY products, wood preservatives or plant protection agents are concerned, as soon as chemicals are involved in intoxication incidents, they must be notified by the attending physicians to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in accordance with the Chemicals Act. In order to effectively protect people from harm caused by dangerous substances and preparations, comprehensive knowledge about the intoxication data is essential. "When it comes to the realistic assessment of the health threat to people from chemical substances and products", commented BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, "the documentation and evaluation of intoxication events is taking on increasing importance." Unlike medicinal products which are systematically tested in human beings, intoxication notifications concerning chemicals are the most important and frequently the only source of relevant information about the toxicity of substances for man.

In 2003 more than 6,500 intoxications were notified to the BfR Centre for Recording Intoxications. Furthermore, during this period it received more than 19,000 new sets of product information on chemicals and preparations from manufacturers and distributors. “This information is available to all poison control centres in Germany and is of use to them in their advice and treatment activities“, explains Dr. Axel Hahn, Head of the BfR Centre for Recording Intoxications. Aside from providing effective assistance in conjunction with intoxications, this data contributes to a more precise assessment of risk and effective hazard prevention. In the recently published brochure “Medical Notifications of Intoxications 2003“(in German) BfR has compiled the most important figures on intoxication notifications and a selection of case studies.

Although most of the intoxication notifications concern accidents at work, intoxications in the home and during recreation still constitute one of the biggest challenges.  “The case of a two-year old child who swallowed drain cleaner and sustained severe burns to the oesophagus highlights the fact that even known sources of danger can have terrible effects if handled carelessly“, comments Hahn. In this case a worker had poured drain cleaner containing potash lye into a cup. Without being noticed, the child picked up the cup and drank the lye. Weeks after treatment of the severe burns to its oesophagus and upper stomach, the child still had considerable difficulty swallowing and had to go back into hospital for further treatment. BfR draws attention to this accident in order to strengthen its warning that drain cleaners, despite correct labelling and child-resistant closures, can still turn into a source of danger in the home as a consequence of incorrect handling.

Again with an eye on the home, BfR repeats its appeal for toxic substances to always be stored in their original packaging and not, for instance, in beverage bottles. In several cases this is what led to confusion with the antifreeze agent, ethylene glycol. Some of the intoxications proved fatal. That’s why BfR will continue its efforts to raise awareness of this risk. Physicians should be prepared for cases of severe intoxication caused by ethylene glycol. The sooner treatment is given, the easier it is to positively influence the course of intoxication.

In its information brochure intended more particularly for physicians, clinic and emergency services staff, BfR gives a detailed description of the symptoms, the course of the accident and the treatment for selected intoxication cases.

In addition to the annual reports, BfR has maintained an intoxication information database since 1977 to support the work of the poison control centres. Based on the notifications received in 2003, there are around 200,000 pieces of information available on intoxication cases, chemical substances and preparations. As a consequence of the amendment to the Chemicals Act, the data concerning 7,221 notifiable dangerous preparations and biocide products like disinfectants and pesticides are included amongst the products covered.

The “Ärztlichen Mitteilungen bei Vergiftungen“ from 2003 and 2002 (in German) published in the series “BfR Information“ are available free-of-charge. They can be ordered from the BfR Press and Public Relations Office, Thielallee 88-92, 14195 Berlin (Fax: 030-8412-4970, E-Mail: pressestelle@bfr.bund.de). Furthermore, they can be accessed on the BfR homepage (www.bfr.bund.de) under Publikationen/Broschüren or can be downloaded as leaflets in pdf format.

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