Deaths from household poisons, inhalant abuse increasing


Every 30 seconds, a child is poisoned in the United States, according to a recent survey conducted by the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Meredith Henry, a Malibu single mom of two young children, first noticed her youngest daughter looked ill after the 4-year-old had been cleaning the windows with Windex.

“I had turned my back for one second,” recalled Henry, “and the next thing I knew, she had unscrewed the nozzle and was sniffing inside.”

Henry had taken the liquid away immediately, but not too long afterward, her daughter began complaining she felt sick.

“Sure enough, her little hands were clammy and she looked a bit green, so I took her to the ER.”

Henry found out from the emergency room doctor her daughter had been mildly poisoned.

“She had a headache for the rest of the day,” said Henry, “but that was it. We lucked out.”

The average Los Angeles County residence contains 100 pounds of chemicals known as household hazardous waste (HHW). These are just everyday products used to maintain homes and hygiene, such as household cleaners, nail polish remover, hair spray, air freshener, pesticides, paint, oil, medicine and glue. Increasingly, children, most of them under the age of 6, are getting poisoned each year from products stored within their reach.

“It’s quite serious,” said Sara Vander Helm, a public relations agent with Rogers and Associates in Los Angeles. “In 1999 alone, poisonings in the United States from solids and liquids found in the home caused 6,300 deaths.”

In addition to the unintentional toxic poisonings of children from HHW are the intentional poisonings, or inhalant abuse.

“At least one in five 8th-graders has inhaled to get high,” stated Dr. Cyrus Rangan, the associate medical director of the California Poison Control Center. “Anything from sniffing white out to ‘huffing’ from aerosol cans. They usually learn by example of someone older, who they look up to.”

Rangan pointed out that although kids caught in possession of illegal drugs such as marijuana or cocaine would be arrested on the spot, “No one would pay attention to a kid buying household cleaners from a hardware store.” Children have discovered household products are inexpensive to obtain, easy to hide and probably the easiest way to get high. In fact, huffing is becoming one of the most widespread problems in the country. It is just as popular as marijuana.

“I’ve sniffed markers and white out before,” confessed Billy, a freshman at Malibu High School. “Mostly, I just like how they smell. You don’t really get high from that stuff unless you breathe it in really deep. You get kind of dizzy for a few minutes. I don’t think it’s that big a deal.”

Rangan believes it is a big deal. He said the chances of first-time “huffers” dying are greater than that of someone trying cocaine or heroine for the first time. Death from inhalant abuse, or Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, can result from heart or lung failure or asphyxiation. Long-term side effects include damage to the brain, lungs, liver and bone marrow; memory loss, hearing impairment and loss of motor skills. Some of the short-term side effects are nausea, vomiting, hangovers and temporary loss of motor skills.

Rangan and Vander Helm are trying to change these tragic mishaps.

“Our campaign is called The Household Hazardous Waste Public Education Campaign,” said Vander Helm. “It reaches out to Los Angeles County residents to try to educate them about preventing poisoning, preventing inhalant abuse.” The campaign encourages residents to help put a stop to toxic poisoning. An easy, convenient way to participate is to bring all unwanted HHW to Household Hazardous Waste Collection Events.

“We collected, in the last year, 5 million pounds of paint, oil, pesticides, and a variety of household wastes that aren’t supposed to go in the trash,” said Melinda Barrett, the Los Angeles County Public Works Director of Environmental Education. “A lot of people don’t realize that any product that is labeled TOXIC or CAUTION or FLAMMABLE, et cetera, should not be thrown in the trash.”

Barrett said when toxic wastes are thrown in the trash, they are brought to landfills where they don’t belong. The chemicals can be harmful to sanitation workers, just as they can be harmful to children who inhale them.

HHW Collection Events, or “Round-ups,” are held every weekend at a specific location somewhere in Los Angeles County. “People can drive in, without even having to get out of their cars,” said Barrett. “And we have licensed teams that take it out and sort it.” An estimated 80 percent of waste like paint and oil is recycled. The remaining waste is either taken to a hazardous landfill or incinerated.

The collection events are free and usually operate Friday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. They take place at least once a year in Malibu, Topanga and Calabasas.

“A lot of these same products are what the kids are using for inhalant abuse,” said Barrett. “So, the collection events are another way to get that out of your house.”

For more information on toxic poisoning and collection events, visit or call the hotline at 888.CLEAN-LA.