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There was the bucket challenge, the cinnamon challenge, and the mannequin challenge.
For weeks now, thanks to a Twitter joke gone wrong, we’ve also seen the “Tide Pod Challenge,” in which teens on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook try to eat a highly concentrated detergent packet meant for laundry — and film it.
“How edgy am I?” one teen asked on Twitter before chewing a pod and, seconds later, gagging as powdered detergent poured out of his mouth.
Another slowly bites into a blue detergent packet, pausing for a moment before gagging and screaming on camera.
After the first burst of toxic liquid, people who take on the challenge often gag, spit and cough. They aren’t actually “eating” the pod. But if people swallow even a small amount of these toxins, they may suffer chemical burns on their throats, esophagus or lungs. They may vomit and endure intense abdominal cramping and diarrhea. They could have trouble breathing for the rest of their lives. In the most extreme cases, they die.
Health professionals have worried for years about how easily children accidentally slurp down detergent pods meant for washing machines and dishwashers. Some look like candy, or feel like teething rings, and when stored underneath sinks, can be easy to reach. More recently, they’ve also worried about teens, young adults and the so-called “Tide Pod Challenge.”
Just how widespread has this become?
Consumer Reports first warned about the dangers of ingesting detergent pods in 2012, when poison control centers reported 7,700 cases among children ages 5 and under, it reported — an average of about 148 a week. The CDC called it an “emerging public health hazard.” In the first three weeks of 2018, poison control centers across the country have gotten 719 laundry pod-related calls, particularly for incidents involving people ages 13 to 19. From Jan. 1 to Jan. 21, 86 of those calls involved teenagers who intentionally ate laundry pods, up from 39 such incidents during the first half of January last year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. None of those teens have died so far.
In 2017, poison control centers recorded 12,299 incidents related to laundry pods, according to preliminary data. More than 80 percent of those incidents involved children age 5 or younger biting into pods. This time last year, call centers logged a total of 609 calls involving laundry pods.
Up until recent months, Ben Hoffman, a pediatrician based in Portland, Oregon, said most calls about pod ingestion usually involve young children or people with cognitive disabilities, impulse issues or oppositional defiant disorder. The chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence and Prevention said he suspects calls coming into poison control centers are “just the tip of the iceberg.”
Along with the obvious risks, laundry pod consumption can trigger underlying and unknown health issues, such as asthma and seizures, Hoffman said. Sometimes, people stop breathing. Since 2012, eight older adults with dementia and two young children have died after eating pods, mistaken for candy.
Hoffman said the industry should do more to make these pods less enticing to children and teens alike: “There’s nothing in these things that are good for you.”
On Wednesday, Ice-T made his own PSA with Jimmy Fallon. Multinational manufacturer Procter & Gamble, which produces Tide Pods, responded to the trend by releasing a public service announcement with Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. “What the heck is going on people?” he asks.
The company is also working with social media companies and other industry partners to try to stomp out the trend, Procter & Gamble CEO David Taylor said in a statement.
“Ensuring the safety of the people who use our products is fundamental to everything we do at P&G,” Taylor said in a Jan. 22 blog post. “However, even the most stringent standards and protocols, labels and warnings can’t prevent intentional abuse fueled by poor judgment and the desire for popularity.”
On Jan. 17, YouTube announced they were pulling videos, often tagged “Tide Pod Challenge,” to discourage people from intentionally harming themselves, violating the social video site’s community guidelines. The company did not respond Monday when asked how many videos have been flagged so far.
“YouTube’s Community Guidelines prohibit content that’s intended to encourage dangerous activities that have an inherent risk of physical harm,” according to YouTube’s written statement. “We work to quickly remove flagged videos that violate our policies.”
For more than 20 years, pharmacist Alfred Aleguas has taken calls at poison control centers for everything from snake bites to the cinnamon challenge. In Tampa, Florida, he manages a regional poison control center and said he and his staff approach each call “knowing potential for severity.”
“You would hope that it would slow down, but it feeds on itself” thanks to social media, Aleguas said.
Advocates are pleading with the public to stop eating laundry pods. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission launched a social media campaign that reminds “Human People” that “laundry pods are not a snack” and “don’t eat poison.”
In 2015, the commission, along with industry and advocacy experts, developed voluntary standards to make the detergent pods taste more bitter, use less appealing opaque colors and improve child-proof packaging, said Joseph Martyak, a spokesman for the commission. The statute requires “substantial compliance,” and Martyak said most companies, if not all, comply with these standards.
Is the media feeding the hype by covering the Tide Pod Challenge?
“One can’t stand by and just let it happen,” Martyak said. “It’s important to get that message out there. This has serious consequences. This isn’t a light-hearted joke.”
“Putting one of these things in your mouth is like playing Russian roulette,” Hoffman said. “You really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Call the national poison help hotline at 1-800-222-1222 or text POISON to 797979 to save the number in your phone.
Laura Santhanam is the Health Reporter and Coordinating Producer for Polling for the PBS NewsHour, where she has also worked as the Data Producer. Follow @LauraSanthanam
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