Accidental Poisoning: Five True Stories of Toxic Mix-Ups

Rushed, tired or confused adults can easily end up poisoning people.

ByABC News
April 8, 2009, 4:23 PM

April 9, 2009— -- Bleach, glue, fuel, arsenic and glass cleaner obviously are not food. But if you think a 30-year-old can always tell the difference better than a 2-year-old, think again.

A string of poisoning cases among adults have hit the news in recent years. Poison experts say many adult poisonings are the result of mixing up medicines or illiteracy.

But the most poignant and deadly examples of late have been the results of accidental mix-ups of products in the home.

Whether the cause is the overbearing stress of the times, the environmental-friendly habit of reusing containers, or trendy drinks that look like they could glow in the dark -- poison experts can only offer tips to avoid all-too-easy errors.

Below are some of the most recent examples of everyday accidents that have led to dangerous poisonings, along with expert advice on how to prevent them in your home.

The day after April Fools' Day this year, a 29-year-old woman in England woke up and stumbled into her bathroom looking for some eye drops.

She squirted liquid from a small dropper bottle into her eyes and immediately knew something was wrong, according to reporting by the Telegraph. Paula Griffin had grabbed highly toxic nail glue that binds to skin in seconds.

"I managed to stop it hitting the center of the eye, and doctors told me later that it saved me from permanent damage," Griffin told the Telegraph. "It was agonizing. It was burning so much it was my natural instinct to shut my eye."

Griffin sat through eight hours of having her eye glued shut before a medical team could separate her lids. So far, she has no permanent damage to her vision and a tale to tell.

Yet, poison experts said the scenario isn't so uncommon.

"They come in small containers with tiny eye droppers or spigots at the end that can look like the same kind of eye droppers that you find in the pharmacy," said Edward P. Krenzelok, a toxicologist and professor of pharmacy and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh. "That [nail glue] can bond your eyelids together."

Krenzelok's advice?

"Never, ever, ever try to separate those eyelids," he said.

Krenzelok recommended a doctor can separate the eyelids later and that a panicked attempt to separate them yourself can do a lot of damage.

Griffin's case might be the classic example for Krenzelok's first rule of thumb in poison prevention: Always read the label.

"Put your glasses on and read the labels," he said.

But in some situations, like outside in the dark, reading the labels can be very difficult.

Grabbing groceries for a cookout, and then grabbing containers at dusk in the backyard, often goes on without a hitch. But last summer an attractive-looking brand of "tiki" lamp oil ended up poisoning people across the United States.

New Jersey officials issued a warning last July after six people drank the oil, mistaking the jug-sized container and yellow liquid for apple juice, according to reports by the Associated Press. One elderly woman died last summer, and an 8-year-old child suffered permanent lung damage from consuming the toxic fuel.

Poison control centers at the time did a national survey and found 70 people had been poisoned by the fuel-apple juice lookalike, according to reporting by the Associated Press.

At least one of the instances of tiki torch poisoning was the result of an adult transferring the toxic fuel into a smaller container, which Krenzelok said is a common mistake.

The Star-Ledger reported that the 8-year-old girl who sustained lung damage drank from a glass on a counter that she thought was filled with juice but was filled with oil.

"That's one of the classical problems as well: People will put things in convenience containers," said Krenzelok.

Reusing containers may be great for non-toxic products, but in the case of toxic chemicals, Krenzelok suggested dealing only with the original containers that have warning labels.

A similar case of a container with an inadequate warning label in Massachusetts left one baby dead, a little girl with an uncertain future and an elderly man facing charges.

Children's deaths by poisoning actually are quite rare, but the tragedy of such a death can rock a community, as the peninsula town of Nahant, Mass., knows well.

In 2003, the American Association of Poison Control Centers' National Poison Data System only counted 35 deaths from poisoning in children. One of them that year was 4-month-old Benjamin Glynn. His sister Morgan, then 2-years-old, narrowly escaped death from arsenic poisoning.

The Glynn children were visiting their father's client, Constantine Pitsas, in Nahant that summer for a neighborhood party. Pitsas, then 77, went down to his basement to grab a jug of spring water and poured some into Benjamin's formula and in a cup for Morgan, according to past reporting by ABC News affiliate WCVB in Boston.

But what Pitsas said he didn't see, and the Glynn family didn't realize at first, was that the bottle had a folded and taped-over label that read "arsenical" and "total weed killer," according to reporting by the Boston Globe.

In 2005, a judge found Pitsas not guilty of involuntary manslaughter, saying that the prosecutor had not proved Pitsas' actions were "wanton and reckless," according to reports by the Associated Press. Pitsas waived his right to a trial by jury.

Although multiple people failed to read the label, and Pitsas hadn't changed containers, Krenzelok said it is always good advice to keep food in separate areas of the home than any chemicals.

More recently, in England, a woman narrowly escaped death and is still struggling to survive after someone at a pub allegedly poured a drink from a bottle without a clear label that was stored in a fridge.

Fran Nichol never even had a chance to cry out after sipping the caustic solution she thought was an apple rum fizzy drink.

The middle-aged woman entered a bar with a companion around Christmas 2007, near Dundee, Scotland, and ordered a fizzy apple juice with rum, according to reporting by the Sunday Mail.

Somehow, a bottle of pipe cleaning solution with sodium hydroxide (or lye) was stored in the pub's fridge and mistaken for fizzy apple juice. After just one sip, Nichol collapsed on the floor in pain.

Such an accident with a product like pipe cleaner was beyond Krenzelok's experience.

"That is rare," said Krenzelok. "It's even gotten to be more uncommon in the general run of things," he said, explaining people have gotten better about safely storing chemicals in their homes.

"Unless there's some malicious intents, we really don't see things that far out," said Krenzelok, who is also a fellow at the American College of Toxicology.

Nichol's throat and mouth were so badly seared by the sip that she could not swallow or eat, according to the Sunday Mail. Although recovering slowly, she had to be fitted with a feeding tube to survive.

Some chemicals are dyed to purposely look toxic, but in Nichol's case, the chemical looked like juice.

In the case of a recent poisoning in Arkansas, the drink children were supposed to be served looked like chemicals.

This March, the owner of a small day care center in Little Rock, Ark., pulled out a plastic container of electric blue liquid and filled the cups of 10 children at her facility.

It only took a couple of sips before the kids realized the Kool-Aid was bad, but an ounce of the windshield wiper fluid was enough to send the kids to a nearby hospital, according to the Associated Press.

"A variety of those juices or things [are] blue," said Krenzelok. "How does a 2-year-old distinguish that from a cleaning fluid?"

Krenzelok said not all glass cleaners are equally as dangerous. For instance, he said an in-home glass cleaner would still be poisonous but a child would have to drink much more to be affected.

"But if you think about automobile windshield fluid -- that is bad," said Krenzelok.

The children admitted to the hospital had measurable amounts of methanol -- which can cause blindness or comas, according to the Associated Press.

In the case of day care center owner Carolyn Bynum, who voluntarily surrendered her state license, the adult failed to follow multiple tips advocated by Krenzelok, such as reading the label, separating household products from food and paying careful attention chemicals around children.

In that case, Krenzelok can only suggest dialing a poison hotline: 1-800-222-1222.

"What's good about that number is it automatically routes you to the nearest poison center," he said. "It's like the 911 of poison center numbers."