Preventing Poisoning During COVID-19

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Earlier this month, the Washington Poison Center (WAPC) released its data “snapshot” for 2020. This is something that WAPC puts out annually in order to educate the public about poisoning trends at the state level. These trends are based on the types of calls that WPAC’s hotline receives throughout the year, compared to years prior.

This year has been one for the books in so many ways, and the new data snapshot tells an interesting story. I had the opportunity to talk with one of WPAC’s staff, and I’d like to share what I learned.

But first: What is the Washington Poison Center (WAPC)?

The Washington Poison Center (WAPC) provides immediate, free, and expert treatment advice and assistance on the telephone in case of exposure to poisonous, hazardous, or toxic substances. Each year, its specialists answer more than 63,000 calls from Washingtonians related to poisoning and toxic exposures. All calls are free, confidential, and help is available 24/7/365.

Major Takeaways

COVID-19 has increased our risks of accidental poisoning. Period. So what is the reason for this increase? WAPC staff believe that it is due to several factors, including:

  • We are home more due to social distancing and other safety guidance
  • We may have new daily routines this year that are out of the ordinary
  • More products in the home (perhaps due to stockpiling) may cause increased access
  • More stress can cause people to be less focused
  • Rumors and misinformation can lead to dangerous choices

Calls to the Center have increased in 2020, and staff have seen spikes in calls regarding substances common to COVID prevention (hand sanitizer and household cleaners). They have also seen spikes in calls for vulnerable demographics like adolescents and adults over 60.

This data is concerning, and parallels poison trends across the U.S.

Cleaners & Sanitizers

It isn’t unusual for WAPC to receive calls about household cleaners; however, this year has definitely seen a serious uptick. Most calls have been in regards to accidental poisonings, or poisonings due to misuse (mixing products, using in low ventilated areas, etc).

The vast majority of hand sanitizer exposures have been in children ages 0-12, most likely due to increased access to the products in the home. The high alcohol content in these products can be very dangerous for young children, so it is extremely important to supervise kids when using hand sanitizer and to make sure that bottles are always out of reach.

Nicotine

An interesting find this year has been the decrease in nicotine exposure calls. In 2020, nicotine exposure in children ages 0-5 actually decreased—a trend that even WAPC staff were a bit surprised about. Perhaps the decrease is due to parents being home more? Or perhaps the new Tobacco 21 law has decreased access to these products? While it is difficult to pinpoint direct correlations, it is certainly nice to see this type of data!

That said, it is still very important to keep nicotine products stored safely and away from children. The vast majority of calls for 0-5 year old’s were for raw tobacco, with vape products in second. WAPC staff explained that raw tobacco can be dangerous, but vape liquid—if ingested—can be fatal. Always, always, keep these products away from children, as flavored liquids can be especially enticing to little kids.

Cannabis

WAPC 2020 Data Snapshot

Trends for THC exposure are less rosy. All age groups saw an increase in THC exposures this year, with a sizeable increase among children 0-5. Among this group, exposures were almost 100% due to unintentional use (getting a hold of an edible, plant-based product, or concentrate). Safe and secure storage of these products is crucial to keeping kids safe.

Medications

This is another area that has historically been a concern for WAPC, however COVID has exacerbated the problem. Stress, distractions, and new routines can lead to user error and poor judgement. WAPC staff encourage people to use medication lists, trackers, and reminders in order to decrease risk of double-dosing or mixing meds.

It is also encouraged that people secure medications in the home. This simple step can decrease the likelihood of accidental poisonings in young children, or misuse among adolescents.

Adolescent Self-harm

By far, this data tells the most worrisome story. Historically, data has shown an increase in youth self-harm/suicidal intent since 2014, and this trend continues. COVID-19 related isolation and stress may increase these risks—something that mental health experts have been concerned about for months.

WAPC 2020 Data Snapshot

It is encouraging, however, to see this data and to realize just how amazing our kids are. Despite all the ups and downs of 2020, our youth are showing resilience in magnitudes. We must not forget that we can all make a positive difference everyday in the lives of our young people.

Two steps that each of us can take today are: 1) locking up medications (even over-the-counter meds like Tylenol and Advil); and 2) talking to our children about substance use. Don’t know where to start with this? Visit Start Talking Now for some ideas.

What to expect when you call

It doesn’t need to be an emergency to call the Washington Poison Center—you can call to get advice or directions if you are concerned or confused about poison-related issues.

You will speak with an expert (nurse, pharmacist, or poison information provider), and there are always Board Certified Medical Toxicologists on-call if necessary. You are not required to give your name, however providing your age and gender can be extremely helpful in order to gauge risk. What was taken, when, and how much are other vital details to provide to the staff.

These calls are always confidential. You do not need to be worried about law enforcement or CPS getting involved. WAPC is concerned about your safety and about providing care.

Staff are trained to provide direction on what to do, what to watch for, and most of the time this can all happen with the caller at home. If/when it is decided that the caller needs medical intervention, staff can advise the caller to go to the emergency room, or WAPC can actually contact EMS on the caller’s behalf.

Finally, WAPC staff will follow-up with you—just to make sure that everything is alright!

It is important to be vigilant when it comes to poisoning prevention—now more than ever. With that said, I feel comforted in knowing that there are trained professionals available to answer my questions. If you don’t have the Washington Poison Center’s phone number somewhere in your home, I encourage you to jot it down! 1-800-222-1222

You never know when you might need it!

To view the Washington Poison Center’s full data report, visit: www.wapc.org/programs/covid-19-resources-information/covid-19-data/.


Saturday, October 24th is Drug Take Back Day

Reading Time: 4 minutes

While stuck at home this past spring and summer, you might have done a bit of cleaning. If you happened to sort through your purse or rearrange your medicine cabinet, you might have come across some old medication that you no longer need. If so, you’ll be happy to know that National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is coming up on Saturday, October 24th! Now is the time to unload your unused or expired meds.

What is Drug Take Back Day?

This is an event that takes place each spring and fall: once in April, and again in October. It is a national event which is organized by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—and co-hosted by local law enforcement—and has been taking place for 18 years. In October 2019, more than 880,000 pounds of unused and expired medications were collected nation-wide. In Skagit alone, more than 300 pounds were collected during last year’s fall event!

Why is it important?

The National Prescription Drug Take Back Day addresses a crucial public safety and public health issue. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9.9 million Americans misused controlled prescription drugs. The study shows that a majority of misused or abused prescription drugs were obtained from family and friends, often from the home medicine cabinet. Unused and expired medications typically remain in the home unmonitored, making them an easy target. Promptly removing leftover prescriptions from your home and safely disposing of your medication is a simple step to ensure that these medications do not end up being misused.  

Where are Take Back events happening locally?

There will be Drug Take Back events happening at the following locations, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.:

  • Anacortes Police Department: 1218 24th St, Anacortes, WA 98221
  • Burlington Public Safety Building: 311 Cedar St, Burlington, WA 98233 Burlington, WA 98233
  • Swinomish Tribal Police Department: 17557 Front St, La Conner, WA 98257
  • Skagit Valley Family YMCA: 1901 Hoag Rd, Mount Vernon, WA 98273
  • Sedro-Woolley City Hall: 325 Metcalf St, Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284

What should I expect?

Due to COVID-19, all locations will be providing drive-through services this October. Drivers will be expected to wear masks, and they will be instructed to stay within their vehicles and to adhere to all directions and posted signage.

Each location will have a law enforcement officer on site and will be responsible for monitoring the disposal bin and taking all medications into custody at the end of the event. Drivers will be expected to handle their own medications and will be instructed to place items into the bin directly.

Note: Call your local law enforcement department for more information.

What types of medications will be accepted?

Controlled, non-controlled, and over-the-counter substances may be collected. Individuals may dispose of medication in its original container or by removing the medication from its container and disposing of it directly into the disposal bin.

If an original container is submitted, the individual is encouraged to remove any identifying information (like a name or address) from the prescription label by either removing the label or using a permanent marker. Liquid products, such as cough syrup, should remain sealed in their original containers.

Intra-venous solutions, injectables, inhalers, syringes, chemotherapy medications, vaping devices that have batteries that cannot be removed, or medical waste will not be accepted due to potential hazard posed by blood-borne pathogens. These medications require special disposal (see below for more information).

If I can’t make it, what should I do?

Disposal of waste medicines is also available every day in Skagit County through the Secure Medicine Return Program operated by MED-Project LLC. Prescription medicines, legally prescribed controlled substances (e.g. narcotics and stimulants), over-the-counter medicines, and pet medications can all be disposed year round via the following MED-Project options:

  • Drop Boxes: Deposit medicine in drop boxes located at select Skagit County pharmacies and law enforcement agencies. Current Drop Box locations are listed at https://med-project.org/locations/skagit/convenient-locations/. Continue to check the website as the program will expand collection locations.
  • Mailer Sent to Individuals: Order pre-paid, pre-addressed, no-cost medicine return mailers to be sent directly to your home. Please go to https://med-project.org/locations/skagit/mail-back/ or call 1-844-633-7765 to order mailers. You can get standard mailers or special mailers for inhalers and prefilled auto-injectors (like Epi Pens).
  • Mailers Distribution Locations: Pick up a no-cost mailer at participating municipal building like fire stations, city halls and libraries. Continue to check https://med-project.org/locations/skagit/convenient-locations/ for an up-to-date and ever-growing list of mailer distribution location near you.

Can’t I just flush old medication?

Safe disposal not only helps prevent misuse and overdose deaths, it’s also important for the health of our environment. Scientists have found medicines in Pacific Northwest water and soils. Even at low levels, these medicines can harm the health of wildlife and leach into our drinking water. Take back programs, and secure medication drop boxes, are the only environmentally safe ways to dispose of opioid medications.

What do I do with the meds I am currently using?

Most people have some type of medication in their home, from prescription meds to over-the-counter items like ibuprofen or cough syrup. For many people, taking medication may be a part of their daily routine, and it just makes sense to have them out on a nightstand or countertop for ease of use.

While this may be okay for people who live alone or do not have frequent visitors, those who have children in their home should consider securing their medication in a lockable compartment. Locking up medication is one of the easiest things that a parent, grandparent, or caregiver can do to prevent youth misuse—or even accidental poisonings for small children.

Email prevention@co.skagit.wa.us for information about free lock boxes (please note that supplies are limited).

To find out more about National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, visit its website.


Red Ribbon Week & Youth Substance Use

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Red Ribbon Week is dedicated to spreading awareness about youth substance use prevention and the mission of keeping all kids drug-free. It takes place every year from October 23 through October 31st, and this year is no exception. Your student’s health teacher or prevention specialist may be touching on some prevention messaging right now, so it could be a prime opportunity to continue this conversation with your child (if you aren’t doing so already). So let’s talk prevention!

Why is it important?

Ninety percent of people with addictions started using substances in their teen years. Beginning at age 10 through the mid- to late-20s, massive changes are underway in the brain. This includes the development of capabilities related to impulse control, managing emotions, problem-solving and anticipating consequences. Substance use during this time period can cause the brain to be more susceptible to addiction and other mental health disorders, especially for kids who are vulnerable.

Substance use and COVID-19

Some early research is coming out that shows that youth substance use rates are being negatively impacted by COVID-19 and social distancing measures. An article written in the Journal for Adolescent Health noted that, of those adolescents surveyed, “the percentage of users decreased [since the beginning of COVID-19]; however, the frequency of both alcohol and cannabis use increased.” Perhaps of more concern is that, while the majority of those using substances were engaging in solitary substance use (49.3%), “many were still using substances with peers via technology (31.6%) and, shockingly, even face to face (23.6%).” For parents who are actively working to keep their kids COVID-free, this added information may be worrisome.

Risks of use and COVID-19

We do not know yet if the occurrence of COVID-19 is higher for people who use drugs or have substance use disorder than for those who don’t use drugs, however some underlying medical conditions seem to increase risk of severe illness from COVID-19. For example, vaping may harm lung health, and emerging evidence suggests that exposure to aerosols from e-cigarettes harms the cells of the lung and diminishes the ability to respond to infection. For this reason, it is possible that drug use could make COVID-19 illness more severe, but more evidence is needed.

Can parents really make a difference?

Absolutely! Parents are the biggest influence in a teen’s life. Even though it may not appear to be true at times, deep down they still want you involved. A strong parent/child bond, especially during the teen years, helps reduce the chances of them engaging in unhealthy behavior and helps set the stage for preventing nicotine, alcohol, and drug use.

When and how to talk about substance use?

These conversations should happen frequently, and typically work best when a parent and child are already engaging in some type of activity together. It is important to listen, show empathy, and be understanding. Connecting often, communicating about your expectations and setting boundaries, and even encouraging healthy risk taking are all things that parents can do to set their children up for success.

Parents can begin talking with their children about drug prevention at a surprisingly young age! These early conversations may not sound exactly like “drug prevention;” instead, the focus should be on laying a strong foundation of trust and openness, while also teaching (and demonstrating) healthy habits. For tips on how to talk to your child at any age, visit: https://drugfree.org/article/prevention-tips-for-every-age/.

What should parents be looking out for?

Figuring out if your child is using substances can be challenging; many of the signs and symptoms are typical teen or young adult behavior. However, sometimes they can be attributed to underlying issues.  Mental health concerns like depression and anxiety, as well as traumatic events or periods of transition, can create a greater risk for the development of problematic substance use. Children and teens are dealing with a lot of changes right now, making it all the more important that parents be looking out for concerning behavior.

If you have reason to suspect use, don’t be afraid to err on the side of caution. Prepare to take action and have a conversation during which you can ask direct questions like “Have you been drinking, vaping or using drugs?” No parent wants to hear “yes,” but being prepared for how you would respond can be the starting point for a more positive outcome.

Where do I go for help?

There is help available if you are concerned that your child may be using substances—or even if you’re struggling with how to begin a conversation! Drugfree.org has one-on-one help available for parents: visit https://drugfree.org/article/get-one-on-one-help/ for ways to connect.

Want to get involved in your community?

Between now and December 15th, our three prevention community coalitions are collecting information from Skagit County adults (18+) about their perceptions regarding local youth substance use. Do you live or work in one of these communities? Consider filing out the survey! Your feedback has direct influence on prevention programming available for youth and families.

Mount Vernon
English- https://www.research.net/r/SKMTVEEN2020
Spanish- https://es.research.net/r/SKMTVESP2020

Sedro-Woolley
English- https://www.research.net/r/SKSEWOEN2020
Spanish- https://es.research.net/r/SKSEWOSP2020

Concrete
English- https://www.research.net/r/SKCOEN2020

For more information about prevention in Skagit County, visit: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/Health/preventionmain.htm