When your home is a deadly trap for your kids

By Time of article published Jun 23, 2004

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By Melissa Flores

Hundreds of small children are treated for accidental poisoning by substances in the house. Parents are urged to follow simple guidelines to remove the risks.

Danger lurks in many places for small children, but parents may not be aware of the danger that lurks in the home.

The Red Cross Children's Hospital in Cape Town sees more than 500 children after accidental poisoning each year. With the help of organisations such as the Child Accident Prevention Foundation of Southern Africa, parents can work to make their homes safe from accidental poisonings.

Nelmarie du Toit, deputy director of the foundation, said children aged two to three were most at risk.

Children under four explore the world through taste and touch. They cannot distinguish between odours and will swallow even bad-tasting substances. This means they might sample anything they find in the home - even poisonous substances.

The two top causes of accidental poisoning in the Cape Town area involve children ingesting medications or paraffin, but other household items also pose dangers.

Accidental ingestion of medication is the number one cause of poisoning. It is common in South Africa because 60 percent to 70 percent of medications are dispensed through government hospitals which use Ziploc bags for medication, instead of bottles with safety caps.

"We are working on regulating the types of containers that can be used for medications," Du Toit said.

She said parents should be sure not to trick children into taking medication by telling them it is sweets.

They should not leave medications in handbags or on night tables where toddlers can easily find them.

When disposing of unused medication, parents should return it to a pharmacy or flush it down a toilet to prevent children finding it.

Paraffin is the second biggest cause of accidental poisoning in South Africa. In rural and poorer areas it is widely used when cooking.

"Paraffin is often purchased in a cooldrink bottle, which small children can confuse for a drink. In summer this is very likely to happen," said Dr Beverly Hoffman of the Tygerberg Poison Centre.

"Storage is also an issue because many people do not have a lot of space."

Children between the ages of one and four are most at risk of ingesting paraffin. As little as 0,1 or a millilitre can cause damage to large areas of the lungs, according to the Child Accident Prevention Foundation.

The Paraffin Safety Association of Southern Africa has two programmes to help parents prevent paraffin poisoning.

The association offers free safety caps to people using cooldrink bottles to store paraffin and has an additional programme where families can put down a small deposit on bottles labelled for paraffin use with safety caps.

The bottles can be refilled and are less likely to be confused with cooldrink or water bottles.

Other household products that can be harmful to children include bleaches, oven cleaners, detergent, insecticides and paints.

Du Toit said parents should always choose products that come with safety caps.

"Push and turn caps are the best for small children. Young children are not co-ordinated enough to push and turn at the same time.

"Items like these should also be kept in locked cupboards or cabinets," she said.

Plants and pests can also be harmful. Parents should check whether plants in or around the house are poisonous and keep them out of reach of children. Children should be taught not to touch spiders, snakes and insects, since some are venomous.

Even after taking these precautions, Hoffman warns, nothing is more important than an alert parent.

Recalling her own daughter at four, she said: "She managed to move a table and pile a chair on it and then put a chair on top of that one to get to the top of a closet where a medicine bottle was stored.

"Passive barriers are not a replacement for parental supervision," Hoffman said.

For more information on poisoning, parents should contact the Poison Information Centre toll-free at 0800 333 444 or the Red Cross Children Hospital's Poison Centre at 021 658 5308.

What are you overlooking at home

Diana Cullis of Kenilworth invited Nelmarie du Toit of the Child Accident Prevention Foundation of Southern Africa to take a look at her home and point out what she will need to change before her nine-month-old daughter Tamsyn starts crawling and walking.


Diana has the right idea in the kitchen. Du Toit finds only pots and pans under the sink instead of cleaning products. The cleaning supplies are in a cupboard on a high shelf out of little Tamsyn's reach. But Du Toit warns a safety latch should also be used to keep curious climbers away from cleaning supplies.

Products without safety caps are also a no-no for families with small children. "If you store cleaning supplies on a high shelf, the cabinet should still have a safety latch. Small children can be innovative when it comes to climbing," Du Toit said.


Washing powder, stain remover, and toilet cleaner are all lined up on the floor in easy reach of baby Tamsyn. Products like these need to be moved to a cupboard out of reach, with a lock or a safety latch.


The items on Cullis's vanity table in her bedroom is an obvious example of what not to leave lying around. These include a bottle of cough medicine and a bottle of pills without safety caps, hand creams and cosmetics that could cause a skin rash, nail polish remover, vitamins and perfumes. Diana will have to find new places to store these items.

Hidden harm

- Vitamins: iron pills can be fatal to small children, so vitamins containing iron need to be out of the way.

- Cosmetics and creams: although not usually harmful if ingested, these products can cause skin rash.

- Alcohol: wine and spirits stored in wine racks or in liquor cabinets can cause alcohol poisoning in children who ingest even a small amount.

- Baby oil or baby powder: children can ingest oil or powder into their lungs, causing asthma attacks and in some cases it has even caused children to stop breathing.

- Plants: many house plants have leaves or stems that are poisonous if ingested so plants should be kept away from little ones.

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