Beware the Look-Alikes

March 19, 2009

Transferring chemicals to unlabeled containers can pose risks to your child's health.

Ten children were recently hospitalized because a staff worker at an Arkansas day care center mistook windshield washer fluid for juice and served it to children. All of the children were hospitalized and one remained days afterward with measureable levels of methanol, a poisonous alcohol sometimes added to windshield washer fluid that can cause blindness when swallowed.

“This recent tragedy illustrates that people with good intentions can make deadly mistakes with chemical products,” said Norma Barton, certified specialist in Poison Information and interim managing director of the Ruth A. Lawrence Poison and Drug Information Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

It is the responsibility of any adult caring for a child to take steps to keep chemicals at bay. As was the case with the blue wiper fluid, children can easily confuse a dangerous substance with a harmless one. Children learn to identify things in the world through color, shape, size and pictures, explained Barton. The blue wiper fluid can look like blue juice to them. They also tend to copy what they see, so if kids see an adult drinking blue juice and they come across blue wiper fluid, they associate it with the blue drink they saw.

To avoid such mishaps, Barton advised a series of actions to secure the safety of children and adults alike.

  • Be sure to safely store dangerous items away from a child’s reach. Children do not have a chance to happen upon a dangerous substance if it is on a high shelf or locked away.
  • Chemicals should always be stored far away from food. At the day care center, the children were poisoned because a chemical product was stored in the refrigerator and was mistaken for a sugary drink. Keeping edible and hazardous substances separated to avoid this confusion.
  • Poisons should always be kept in their original containers. These containers include important warnings about the substances. If a poison is stored in a food container like a cup or bottle, someone can easily get confused and might think it is safe to ingest. Furthermore, do not reuse containers that held dangerous substances. Even after the chemical has been removed and the container has been thoroughly washed, a container may carry residue from a dangerous substance.

Barton implores anyone with questions or concerns about chemicals to call the Ruth A. Lawrence Poison and Drug Information Center Hotline at 1-800-222-1222. Poison and drug specialists are standing by to take your call. You can also visit

The Ruth A. Lawrence Poison and Drug Information Center is based out of the University of Rochester Medical Center and serves 12 counties in the Finger Lakes region.

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