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Health & Wellness

Thousands of children at risk from eating laundry pods, study finds

As Jill Koziol turned away from her 8-month-old daughter to check on her toddler, the unthinkable happened. In a fraction of a second little Cate pulled herself up against the laundry hamper, grabbed a detergent pod and popped it into her mouth. 

Koziol heard a gagging sound, whipped around and was horrified to see the remains of the pod on the floor and Cate in obvious distress. 

"The next few moments were very chaotic with a screaming child, me crying and screaming to poison control to be heard over Cate's cries," the 34-year-old New Yorker said.

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Cate Koziol was not yet 9 months old when she bit into a laundry pod and was hospitalized in the pediatric ICU last September.

Within minutes Cate was vomiting and the Koziols were in an ambulance racing to the hospital.

Cate Koziol is hardly alone in her run-in with a detergent pod. A study published on Monday in Pediatrics finds that in 2012 and 2013 17,230 children under age 6 got into trouble with detergent pods. Most — nearly 80 percent — of the children were reported to have ingested a pod. Nearly two-thirds of the children were between 1 and 2 years old.

“The severity of these exposures varies,” said study coauthor Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “Sometimes the chemicals get into the eyes, sometimes they are swallowed. And if they are swallowed, they can cause severe burns to the esophagus and the stomach.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that most of the problems involved 1- and 2-year-old kids putting pods into their mouths, Smith said.

“This is the age group where they explore the environment with their mouths,” he explained.

A big part of the problem is that the chemicals in the pods are more dangerous than those in traditional laundry detergents.

“I’ve been treating children for over 30 years in emergency departments,” Smith said. “And for decades if a child came in with a laundry detergent exposure it was usually no big deal. But these are different. They have strong concentrated chemicals in them. And that’s why it’s so important for parents to understand the dangers associated with their use.”

Smith and his colleagues found that among children exposed to the packets, about half were managed at home and 35 percent were treated and released from a health care facility. One child died.

“The concern we have is that in about 700 of these children — that’s a child every day in this country — they had to be admitted to the hospital,” Smith said, adding that some ended up in pediatric intensive care units either in a coma or unable to breathe without the help of mechanical ventilation.

Andrea Gielen, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, hopes the new findings will be a wake up call for parents.  

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Cate Koziol spent two days in the pediatric ICU last September.

“I think it is definitely intended to alert parents to a hazardous household product that they need to make sure is tucked away from where young children can access — much like other dangerous household products, said Gielen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In a statement the American Cleaning Institute said, “ACI and its member companies have directly engaged parents and caregivers, as well as poison control centers, pediatricians and other medical professionals, educators and social service providers in alerting them to the potential for childhood accidents involving these products.”

A recent survey by the institute suggests that many parents are unaware of the dangers. While 70% of those surveyed said they store household cleaners — such as dishwashing detergent and glass and toilet cleaners — safely and securely, just 34 percent reported properly storing their laundry pods in a cabinet or a cabinet with a lock, the ACI found. More worrisome, one out of six people admitted to taking no safety precautions at all when it came to storing laundry pods.

That wasn’t the case in the Koziol home. In the minutes before Cate got into trouble with one, Jill Koziol had taken a single pod down and set it on the family’s hamper to get everything ready for her husband to take to their apartment’s laundry room.

The Koziols’ experience is “a perfect example of how these things can happen in the blink of an eye,” Gielen said.

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Cate Koziol, here at nearly 11 months, recovered after biting into a laundry pod. Although her mother stored the pods out of reach, she had taken one out and left it on a hamper for her husband to take to the laundry room.

But Gielen said the onus isn’t just on parents. The new study should sound the alarm for product designers, too. “When you are designing a new product you need to be thinking about the most vulnerable part of the population and how it will interact with the product. In this case, it is kids,” she said

When the Koziols arrived at the emergency room, doctors decided to keep Cate there for observation. And it was a good thing they did. Within a couple of hours the little girl was wheezing and struggling to breathe. Her doctors decided to intubate her and Cate spent the next two days in the pediatric intensive care unit.

The whole experience was frightening, but Cate pulled through unscathed.

“Cate is back to normal, though mommy may never quite recover from the ordeal,” Koziol said.

Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic” and “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry."

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