/ Health, Parenting

Why should laundry tablets look so much like sweets?

Every parent of a young child must at some time have longed to have eyes in the back of their head. You can take every precaution – get a stairgate, a baby monitor, and a washing machine with a childproof lock. And still there is only so much you can do.

And I speak from experience. As a kid, I drove my poor mum mad with worry when I went through a phase of picking up stones and coins to lick as soon as she wasn’t looking – seeing it as a game. And stuffing objects in my mouth to gnaw on them – even if the object in question happened to be my sister’s fingers.

Turns out it’s pretty normal for babies and young children to lift objects up to suck, and explore their taste and texture. Which is why a story about children eating laundry tablets doesn’t seem so surprising to me…

Toxic tablets

In fact, there have been more than 2,000 cases involving children and gel or liquid laundry capsules in the past five years, according to the National Poison Information Service.

Apparently the problem is that the tablets are so often brightly coloured, small and enticing-looking that children are mistaking them for sweets. But the capsules contain chemicals that can cause burns, internal swelling, breathing problems, temporary blindness and in severe cases can induce a coma.

Of course parents will do all they can to keep these out of reach or in locked cupboards, but it only takes a second for the child to reach out and grab one.

It must every parent’s nightmare and, try as you might to keep them safe, there is simply no way to watch everything they do, every minute of the day.

As Sheila Merrill, Public Health Adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), says:

‘Children are naturally inquisitive and tend to explore the world with their mouths – coupled with the fact liquid laundry capsules can be mistaken for sweets, and that the casing dissolves in contact with saliva, it makes it important to safely store them out of the reach of children.’

Liquitab design

To be fair, action has been taken to tackle the problem. Many laundry capsules do now come in plastic sealable boxes, and European rules introduced in 2015 mean they must taste horrible and be more water and pressure-resistant than previously. But despite this, children are clearly still drawn to these brightly coloured jelly-like tabs.

So has your child ever gone through a phase of putting objects into their mouth that they shouldn’t have? What did you do about it?


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Shows the workings clearly of the US equivalent of Which? dealing with the issue. It also shows that in early 2013 the problems of accessing proper information in the US with hyndreds of redacted pages.

The content and recommendations, and the research are excellent. In my view it needs to be up-dated though by linking prominently to this later piece which includes a chilling video.

We are obviously behind the times in taking action on this problem. In order to achieve effective washing at low temperatures, the chemicals in these pods are pretty aggressive. I had a look at one example and the package was labelled as ‘irritant’. Having had a pod burst and got the contents between my fingers, irritant is a bit of an understatement.

Are the manufacturers of these products unaware that bright colours – the box as well as the pods – makes them attractive to children. For years we have had the problem of brightly coloured tablets and capsules containing drugs that can injure and kill.

Maybe we need some publicity about which of the products have caused most harm to encourage the manufacturers to act.

Between the age of 0 and 2 the mouth is the primary sense organ, so changing the appearance of the tablets won’t have much effect.

I can still remember fitting child-proof locks to lower cabinets and moving all the caustic / poisonous items to cupboards well above floor level when our two were tiny. But kids can and do surprise with their developing abilities and it’s easy to forget that a child reaches half its adult height by the age of two, so constant vigilance is called for.

The advice for parents to use powders rather than pods would seem a very sensible. Obviously keeping children and any household items , chemicals etc is necessary. In the case outlined in the video an accidental spillage was the culprit and one can easily imagine how it happened and why one escaped.

Powder is less tasty, far less damaging if ingested, and does not skitter away if dropped.

As an overall comment it is a sad indictment of the regulatory systems that when first launched or even pre-launch for the companies involved no one considered the potential damage and death.

The obvious answer is to ban all sweets and thus remove the source of the attraction to washing machine and dishwasher tabs. That could also lead to other health benefits.

🙂 Like it. On the ‘use powder not tablets’ front that’s what we used to do until we discovered that the propensity of powder to Aerosolize made it, in our opinion, more dangerous than tablets. After filling the dishwasher powder receptacle we could taste the stuff for quite a while afterwards, and it often led to a coughing session. Tablets are more controllable, but the real issue is kids grow and can always do something more than they could last week. Unless you build a sturdy cage in which to keep them it’s a pretty full time job watching what they’re up to at that age. And the Child Protection teams mildly disapprove of cages…

Fair point but I think the advice is aimed at parents with small children.

It is also involved with laundry use and in that area I have trouble working out how a tablet knows how strong to be if there is limited washing in the machine. Powder can be added not to overdose, and of course water levels altered.

Yes – it was small children we were concerned about in that context. I think the second point is moot, really; most folk fill dispensers to the recommended level and don’t usually fiddle with quantities or water, which you can’t adjust in any dishwashers I’ve used.

This Conversation addressed the use of laundry capsules in washing machine. There are good alternatives for laundry using powder or gel or liquid washing products. I think the bigger risk is with dishwasher tabs that usually seem to be kept in the cupboard under the sink, and not necessarily in their box or bag, so they could be easily accessible to children. The Fairy Platinum tabs [as well as others I expect] look appealing but smell revolting .

I’m sure this might have been said earlier. We keep lots of stuff in cupboards under the kitchen sink, in the bathroom, in the garage or garden shed, that could be injurious to small children – let alone dangerous plants that we inadvertently grow like laburnum, foxgloves, deadly nightshade, toadstools…… We can only be vigilant about the plants, but you can lock sheds and garages and do what we did with cupboards when our children were little. Fit secondary plastic latches to the doors that need dexterity to release. They all survived unscathed.

Many garden products come in bottles with childproof lids – squeeze firmly before you can turn them. Perhaps some enterprising outfit (Mothercare?) might supply similar containers in which you could store your harmful laundry tablets?

malcolm – You may be right there is a basic assumption that children and dangerous items are kept apart.

Therefore if we assume that a certain amount of “accidents” will happen each year if we make something prettier to a child and more potent then it would be reasonable to assume that even if the incidence remained at the same level then laundry tab ones are far more likely to be dangerous. However the early indications were that tabs created more incidents. The research from three or four years ago bears this out.

Better lids, opaque packaging and opaque tabs are being introduced but you have wonder at the thinking behind the original launch products and the risk assessment.

Incidentally no one has mentioned the dangers of euphorbia. Despite ythe political nature of EU -phorbia I think it is my duty to mention it : )

“The milky sap of spurges (called “latex”) evolved as a deterrent to herbivores. It is white and colorless when dry, except in E. abdelkuri, where it is yellow. The pressurized sap seeps from the slightest wound and congeals after a few minutes in air. The skin irritating and caustic effects are largely caused by varying amounts of diterpenes. Triterpenes such as betulin and corresponding esters are other major components of the latex.[14] In contact with mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth), the latex can produce extremely painful inflammation. Therefore, spurges should be handled with caution and kept away from children and pets. Latex on skin should be washed off immediately and thoroughly. Congealed latex is insoluble in water, but can be removed with an emulsifier like milk or soap. A physician should be consulted if inflammation occurs, as severe eye damage including permanent blindness may result from exposure to the sap.[15] When large succulent spurges in a greenhouse are cut, vapours can cause irritation to the eyes and throat several metres away. Precautions, including sufficient ventilation, are required.”

A great deal of Hemlock and Wolfsbane (Aconitum) grows wild near us and it does mean little ones have to be instructed early in what not to try.

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Dangerous stuff.

If you take your car to an automatic car wash, you don’t have to put in a measured amount of detergent. The machine contains one or more reservoirs of cleaning fluid and uses the correct amount for the wash programme you have selected. The customer is protected from the undiluted chemicals in the reservoirs.

Have a look at this Australian advert, which shows a washing machine with two reservoirs, from which the correct amount of cleaning fluid is used according to the programme and how dirty the load is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9QvygcFG2g

The hazardous chemicals don’t have to be handled every time the machine is used as the reservoirs should last months, so spare cartridges can be kept well out of harms way. Another advantage of detergent dosing is that bleaching agents can automatically be used unless the load is coloured, helping prevent bacteria growing on the innards of the machine as a result of low temperature washing.

It’s marketing. If a product looks attractive (in this case very colourful) the purchaser is more inclined to like it and buy it. I’m sure the colours in these packages are additives and not the actual colour of the useful product.

It’s similar to saying something is free and there is a whole palaver of having to spend money on collecting vouchers and pay postage before you get your ‘free’ item.

I think both of these marketing techniques are a bit of a con.