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From lamp oil to button batteries: celebrating the 50th anniversary of the German Committee of Poisonings

08/2014, 25.04.2014

The BfR and the Committee of Poisonings recommend national monitoring of cases of poisoning

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the Committee for the Assessment of Poisonings at the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) recommends that data on the causes and clinical courses of poisoning should be collected more systematically at the national level. “In the five decades since its foundation, the Committee has, together with the German Poison Information Centres, made a great contribution to significantly reducing the risk of poisoning accidents, especially among children”, says BfR President Professor Dr Dr Andreas Hensel. “It is therefore all the more important to support this work through regular countrywide documentation in the form of a national poisoning register.” The aim is to recognise risks early so that they can be identified and communicated more systematically. On the occasion of its anniversary, the Committee also draws attention to new risk groups and new product risks. A scientific event to mark the anniversary will take place at the BfR location in Berlin-Marienfelde on 29 April 2014 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

In Germany, no data on cases of poisoning have so far been systematically collected and analysed. Existing data collections, for example from poison information centres and cases of poisonings reported by physicians, have not been developed and standardised to an extent that would allow regular and comprehensive statistics on cases of poisoning in Germany. The BfR Committee therefore recommends setting up a national monitoring programme of poisoning accidents involving substances and products as already in existence, for example, in the USA, Switzerland and Sweden.

In collaboration with the poison information centres, the Committee has identified the elderly as a risk group which so far has received too little attention. In old age, with certain illnesses or the onset of dementia a person’s sense of taste is impaired. As a result, elderly people may ingest even larger quantities of harmful substances than small children. This means that the measures taken to prevent poisoning accidents must be at least equivalent to those for children.

According to assessments conducted by the Committee, two relatively new product groups available in the German market pose considerable health risks which may become even more severe in future. Due to their attractive appearance, liquid detergents contained in water-soluble foil, so-called liquid caps, can easily be mistaken by children for sweets. The caps contain highly concentrated laundry detergent which even in small doses can lead to nausea, vomiting or breathlessness. The BfR has recommended to manufacturers to design the products in a way that is less attractive to children.

Due to their higher voltage, energy density and their diameter of approximately 22 mm, new lithium button batteries for small electric devices pose a clearly increased health risk compared to the previous smaller coin cells. Owing to their size, the lithium cells get stuck in the oesophagus more easily where, as a result of the high discharge current, they can cause burn-like symptoms with severe organ damage. Abroad, numerous severe cases of illness and deaths have occurred due to these button batteries.

Toxic plants are less dangerous than previously assumed. This is shown by a comprehensive reassessment of the first German poisonous plant list by the committee on the basis of recent poisoning accidents. Drawing on these new insights, a poisonous plant garden was created for the general and professional public at the BfR location in Berlin-Marienfelde. The garden aims to provide examples of safe planting at schools, kindergartens and public institutions and promotes standardised designation of toxicity, for example in botanic gardens.

The BfR has developed a new app “Poisoning Accidents Among Children”. The application contains information on the individual components of chemical products, drugs, plants and mushrooms, poisoning symptoms and first aid measures. The option of directly calling up the nearest poisoning emergency centre means that medical advice can be obtained immediately in case poisoning occurs.

Based on an American model, the Committee for the Assessment of Intoxications was founded by the Federal Ministry of Health together with a documentation and assessment centre for poisoning. Its task is to identify and document health impairments through products and substances and to assess them in terms of their effects on humans. The Committee has notably made significant progress in the area of prevention. These include: several EU standards (e.g. “child-proof closure”), numerous formulation changes, warning notices, e.g. on different caustic products, EU bans on dangerous lamp oils and grill lighters, and an EU-wide restriction in the use of nitric acid in products intended for consumers. Within the framework of the Committee, the world’s largest and most comprehensive database with information on formulation has been developed for emergency aid in German poison centres.

Open to the public and free of charge, the event will take place on 29 April 2014 in the lecture theatre of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), Diedersdorfer Weg 1, 12277 Berlin (Marienfelde). Please register at www.bfr.bund.de/de/veranstaltungen.html

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). 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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