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Toddler eyes 'burnt by detergent'

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Children’s eyes could be seriously damaged by capsules of laundry detergent, doctors have warned.

Capsules of concentrated detergent first went on sale in 2001, designed to be less messy and inconvenient than washing powders and liquids. However, hospital records suggest that curious children can be injured if they burst the brightly coloured sacks and release the cleaning agents inside.

In a letter to the British Medical Journal, ophthalmologists from the Western Eye Hospital, London, say that the corrosive substances in the cleaning capsules can cause severe burns if they get into the eyes of toddlers. The doctors go on to say that 40% of the chemical eye burns they treat infants for involve these capsules.

What did the report say?

The doctors say that detergent capsules were linked to 40% of the chemical eye injuries they treated in children under the age of five. The average age of those treated was two. The doctors also consulted Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Poisons’ Unit in London, finding that it had received 192 enquiries in 2007-8 and 225 during 2006-7 relating to the capsules. One-fifth of these enquiries were related to children who had the detergent in their eyes.

Of the 13 children the doctors treated for detergent in their eyes, 12 experienced chemical burns to their cornea, the clear layer covering the iris and pupil. For these children, the lining of the cornea took up to three days to heal.

However, one child only had their eye washed with water on arrival at hospital. The child sustained total burns to the cornea in both eyes, taking the corneal lining seven days to heal.

What is the danger from these products?

According to the authors, detergent capsules contain concentrated alkaline solutions such as detergents that can cause severe chemical injuries to the eyes. They say that alkali burns are the most serious form of chemical injury to the eye, potentially causing irreversible damage that can have lifelong ramifications.

The brightly coloured contents and unusual texture of the capsules may also make them tempting playthings for exploring toddlers, who might burst them by squeezing them or placing them in their mouths. While other forms of cleaning product can also harm children, concentrated liquid capsules may be more likely to cause accidents than bottled or powdered detergents if left within a child’s reach.

What should I do if my child gets detergent in their eye?

If detergent gets into a child’s eyes, it is important to take action as soon as possible in order to limit further damage:

  • Wash their eyes out under large amounts of cold, running water for at least 10 minutes.
  • While washing, gently hold the eyelids open to help flush out as much of the detergent as possible.
  • Seek medical advice promptly. You can call NHS Direct on 0845 4647.

Sterile saline solution can also be used to wash out the eyes, although it is unlikely to be available in most homes.

If the detergents are ingested (swallowed), parents should seek medical advice promptly.

How should I store these products if I use them?

Detergents and other cleaning products are often stored in cupboards under sinks, within easy reach of curious toddlers. Products should be stored in a sealed container on a high shelf or within a childproof cupboard, to keep them out of a child’s reach. Using baby safety gates to block doorways can also keep children out of the kitchen, where a high proportion of accidents occur.

Where can I get more advice on preventing and treating accidents?

Emergencies such as chemical burns to the eyes should always be referred to trained medical professionals. However, knowing how to prevent and deal with accidents are important skills to have and many organisations offer reliable advice for parents. More information is available at:

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