Health & Wellness

Eye injuries linked to liquid laundry packets surge among small kids

Liquid laundry packets — already under scrutiny after thousands of incidents of kids mistaking them for toys or candy — are responsible for a growing number of eye injuries in children.

The proportion of chemical burns to the eye caused by the packets surged 32-fold between 2012 and 2015 among preschool-aged kids, a new report published Thursday in JAMA Ophthalmology found. But an industry group countered that the study analyzed data before new voluntary safety standards designed to prevent such injuries took effect.

Still, most parents probably aren’t aware the packets could pose a risk to their children’s vision, said study co-author R. Sterling Haring, a physician and researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy.

“This is potentially very serious,” Haring told TODAY. “The chemicals, like those found in these detergent pods, can cause long-term, potentially permanent vision damage.”

RELATED: More children harmed by ingesting laundry pods

Kids who were injured were probably squeezing and popping the packets, leading the contents to squirt into their eyes; or they got the detergent on their hands and then rubbed their eyes. Almost 85 percent of the injuries happened at home, the study notes.

For the report, Haring and his colleagues analyzed eye injuries logged in the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System from 2010 until the end of 2015. They specifically looked for incidents that led to chemical burns or conjunctivitis among 3- and 4-year olds.

The first eye injuries involving liquid laundry packets in that age group were reported in 2012, with just a dozen recorded that year. But that number surged to 480 by the end of 2015.

Liquid laundry packets, also commonly called laundry detergent pods, were introduced in the U.S. in 2010, the CDC notes. They contain concentrated liquid detergent inside a membrane that dissolves when it hits water. But the colorful, bite-size packets also attract small children, who are tempted to put them in their mouths or otherwise handle them.

“It’s squishy, it’s fun to play with — these kids are playing with them like they’re toys or they’re trying to bite into them like they’re candy,” Haring said.

Health experts have already sounded the alarm about the danger of kids ingesting the contents, with the American Association of Poison Control Centers logging reports of 11,528 exposures last year.

RELATED: Thousands of children at risk from eating laundry pods

Eye injuries involving liquid laundry packets represented more than one-quarter of all chemical eye burns among children 3-4 years old by the end of 2015, the new report noted.

But the American Cleaning Institute, which represents laundry detergent manufacturers, said a voluntary safety standard that ensures the packets “withstand the squeezing pressure of a child” was introduced in December 2015.

More than 99 percent of the products shipped to retailers were in compliance with the new standard by the end of 2016, the group noted. The standard also calls for the soluble membrane to taste bitter to put off kids and the packaging to be opaque so the packets aren't visible from the outside.

“Manufacturers of liquid laundry detergent packets are very committed to reducing the number of incidents with these products, which are used safely by millions of consumers every day,” it said in a statement.

RELATED: Lawmakers take aim at brightly colored laundry pods

Haring urged parents to put the packets up and away and out of sight, in the same way the CDC advises to keep medicines away from children.

If your child squirts or rubs the contents of the packet into his eye, the first and most important thing to do is to rinse it under cool water for 20 minutes, then take your child to the emergency room or an ophthalmologist who can see you immediately, he said.

“The longer that these chemicals stay in the eye, the more likely they are to cause permanent damage to vision and the eye itself,” Haring warned.

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