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New liquid laundry washing detergents can cause poisoning accidents involving children

07/2014, 31.03.2014

Highly concentrated "liquid caps" are easily mistaken for sweets

New attractively portioned liquid laundry detergents in the form of so-called "liquid caps" can pose a relevant health risk to children. This is the conclusion reached by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) on the basis of an assessment of poisoning accidents both in Germany and abroad and upon consultation with its Committee for the Assessment of Poisonings. "The bright and colourful "liquid caps" which look like large sweets are very attractive to children in particular", says BfR President Prof. Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "In order to avoid poisoning accidents, parents should always ensure that the products do not get into the hands of children." Once the packaging has been opened, the contents are especially attractive to children. The BfR has recommended to manufacturers that their products are made safer in future. The manufacturers have already taken some safety measures.

Liquid caps are a product innovation in the laundry detergent segment. They are also known as gel caps or detergent capsules. They are highly concentrated liquid laundry detergents contained in a thin plastic capsule which dissolves in the water during washing. Experience gained in other countries show that laundry caps pose an increased risk of poisoning. In Great Britain, France and Italy where the caps have been on the market for some time, 400 to 500 enquiries about poisoning accidents with liquid caps are reported every year. Since 2012, two German poison information centres have documented about 150 cases of which about 10% led to moderately severe health impairment. This means that in terms of the health risk, liquid caps significantly differ from other laundry and cleaning detergents available in the market.

When liquid caps are kept within reach of children, there is a risk of putting the perceived “sweets” in their mouth and biting on them. Due to their manageable size, their bright colours, the shiny packaging and the soft, smooth surface of the liquid caps, it cannot even be ruled out that adults of advanced age mistake them for sweets, if they suffer from certain illnesses or early-stage dementia. Since the caps contain significantly higher concentrations of surfactants compared to other laundry detergents, it is likely that even small quantities pose health risks. As is the case with other surfactants, coughing, nausea and vomiting are clear symptoms of adverse health effects. In that case, a medical professional must under all circumstances examine the patient to rule out that the active washing substances have entered the lungs (aspiration).

Based on known German cases and experience gained in other countries, the BfR is of the opinion that corrective action is needed for liquid caps in order to minimise health risk for consumers. The BfR has requested manufacturers to take suitable measures to make these products less attractive to children in terms of their shape, colour and surface texture. Most product lines have now stopped using colours that hold special fascination for children. In addition, the packaging closure has been reinforced and warnings now appear on the packaging. Moreover, manufacturers are currently investigating whether the plastic packaging could be coated with a bitter-tasting substance and whether a different surface material could be used. The BfR recommends that these plans are implemented quickly and that they are supplemented with further measures such as dark non-shiny plastic surfaces.

Parents should close the laundry packaging immediately after use. In addition, individual portions should not be left on the washing machine where children may grab them, nor should refill containers be stored within reach of children. Discussing the issue with children and their caregivers can also help to reduce the risk of poisoning.

About the BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

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