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'Tide pod challenge' videos trigger warnings against eating laundry detergent

Consumer advocates are speaking out after a rash of online videos show teens eating liquid laundry detergent pods, dubbed as the "Tide pod challenge."
/ Source: TODAY

First there was the cinnamon challenge, then there was the salt and ice challenge. Now, there's a new viral video challenge that's sweeping the nation among teens, with potentially fatal consequences.

Officials are warning the public about the dangerous trend among young people who put laundry detergent pods in their mouths for a laugh on social media, dubbed the "Tide pod challenge."

Across the internet, the memes and video challenges of the hazardous stunt have taken off. The joke is apparent: From toddlers to adults with a sweet tooth, the pods look just like candy.

The challenge usually involves a young adult preparing to eat the pod, then sticking it in his or her mouth and reacting to it. Teenagers, who at first seemed to be in on the joke, are seen shaking, stirring, even cooking packets of laundry detergent, in part prompted by ridiculous meme images touting the appealing, candy-colored packets as a "forbidden fruit."

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which has recently renewed efforts to warn against harmful exposure to the pods, 10 people have actually died from eating them.

Additionally last year, poison control centers received reports of more than 10,500 calls of children 5 years old or younger who were inappropriately exposed to the laundry pods.

Severe side effects, according to NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar, and Dr. Gary Smith, who coauthored a 2016 report for the journal Pediatrics, include:

  • vomiting
  • coughing
  • loss of consciousness
  • respiratory arrest
  • coma
  • fluid in the lungs
  • cardiac arrest

For adults with dementia, ingesting the substance may also be fatal.

The proportion of chemical burns to the eye caused by the little rainbow-colored gel packets went up 32-fold between 2012 and 2015 among preschool-aged kids, according to a 2017 report in JAMA Ophthalmology.

When the little shiny, multicolored detergent pods first became available, they were soon followed by manufacturer warnings and calls by consumer advocacy groups to better protect children from exposure.

In a 2016 interview with TODAY, Dr. Smith noted that calls to poison control centers about children being exposed to detergent rose 20 percent in just two years, "especially among exposures to laundry detergent packets."

He said that it's especially perilous to toddlers who are "exploring with their mouth." In his two-year study, more than 17,800 children under the age of 6 ran into problems with the pods, with 80 percent fully ingesting them.

"In fact, a child is reported to a poison control center about every 45 minutes in this country," he said.

Consumer protection groups are especially worried about young children mimicking the dangerous behavior.

"It started out as a joke and a prank on the Internet, and it's gone too far," CPSC Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle told TODAY.

"The teenagers who are doing this need to understand that this is reckless," she added. "This is a poisonous substance that they're putting into their bodies."

In response to the past concerns, some companies have made their pod-packaging efforts more childproof, including individually wrapping some pods. Others have launched ad campaigns about the risks.

Proctor and Gamble, the company that owns Tide, launched an online video campaign with New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to warn teenagers specifically about the danger.

Proctor and Gamble issued a statement to NBC News in response to the trend: "Laundry packs are made to clean clothes. They should not be played with, whatever the circumstance, even if meant as a joke."