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"Ärztliche Mitteilungen" (Medical Notifications) of Poisonings 1998 published

01/2000, 05.09.2000

Household chemicals: senior citizens are also more at risk

Household chemicals are not just a source of risk for small children. Poisonings and accidents with chemical substances and products in the home, which have been notified by attending doctors and poison control centres to the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine (BgVV), document that even elderly people are very much at risk from household cleaning products and other liquid chemicals. For instance, they can mistake these products for beverages and drink them by mistake. This can have serious repercussions for their health. Between 1990 and 1998, 9 fatalities of people aged between 65 and 90 were notified to BgVV who had accidentally ingested surfactant-containing household products like for instance washing-up liquid or shower gel. Hence, older, sometimes confused people are exposed to a special risk from chemicals. Up to now, this had not been common knowledge. Unlike children, who normally only drink a small amount because of their healthy reflexes and also spit out some of what has been ingested, older people would appear to drink larger amounts up to 500 ml.

But even the ingestion of smaller amounts constitutes a huge threat to health in the case of specific disinfectants. BgVV was notified of several cases in which very old residents in old people's homes drank relatively small amounts of benzalkonium chloride-containing disinfectant solutions from containers which had not been safely stored away. Severe corrosion of the oesophagus and chemical pneumonia were the consequences; in two cases the patients even died.

Based on these notifications BgVV would like to stress that nursing and cleaning staff in particular in old people's homes, old people's day centres and clinics should be informed that household cleaning products, shower products and disinfectants have to be stored away safely. According to the information from the Medical Notifications from doctors, containers and packagings with disinfectants do not yet carry sufficient warnings about the associated health risk. In the case of benzalkonium chloride-containing products, BgVV has, therefore, called on manufacturers and industrial associations to label their products as "corrosive" in line with the risk and also to fit safety closures to the containers.

In order to increase overall product safety for chemical substances and products, BgVV informs the competent ministries, manufacturers, distributors and industrial associations in an anonymous manner about cases of severe health disorders with a direct link to the undesirable effects of chemicals. Manufacturers and distributors are asked to inform BgVV whether and, if so, what steps are to be taken to increase product safety. Cases with no severe health disorders are analysed by BgVV at the end of the year. A summary of the results is passed on to manufacturers and distributors.

By way of these activities involving more speedy information to manufacturers and distributors about undesirable effects of consumer products, BgVV is making a major contribution to risk-reducing measures being taken more quickly and industry doing more to fulfil its obligation for responsible care.

The "Ärztliche Mitteilungen (Medical Notifications) of Poisonings 1998" can be requested in writing from the Federal Institute for the Health Protection for Consumers and Veterinary Medicine, Thielallee 88-92, 14195 Berlin or by fax on 01888/412 4970. A PDF version is also available on the Internet under the URL


Publications - Broschüren

Date Title Size
Ärztliche Mitteilungen bei Vergiftungen 1998 296.8 KB


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