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‘Tis the season for rural poisonings

At this time of year, most people are aware that some holiday plants, such as mistletoe and poinsettia, can be toxic. In addition, wintertime is the season for poisonings from a variety of toxins, especially in rural settings, says Donna Lotzer, poison education coordinator at the UW Hospital Poison Prevention and Education Center.

“Children are accidentally exposed to any number of poisons on the farm,” said Lotzer. “These range from kerosene and antifreeze to stored seed corn, pipeline cleaners and pesticides. Many of these products are brightly colored or scented, which appeal to youngsters.

“Exposures are not limited to ingestions, of course,” Lotzer noted. “Eye/skin/inhalation exposures can potentially have just as serious consequences as swallowed poisons.”

Children are not the only ones exposed to toxins on the family farm. “Adults are at risk for tragic exposures to hydrogen sulfide buildup in manure pits, anhydrous ammonia, silo gas and carbon monoxide from equipment running in enclosed areas or improperly vented wood-burning fireplaces or kerosene heaters,” Lotzer said.

Nationwide, a number of poison centers were consolidated within the past five years. Now all calls go to a single poison center number: 1-800-222-1222, answered at individual state poison centers. Children”s Hospital of Wisconsin Poison Center in Milwaukee has been responding to calls statewide since July 2001. Calls are taken by specially trained nurses who are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week with medical support as needed, said Lotzer.

Most calls to the state poison center are for accidental poisonings in children five and under. The majority of these cases are managed on site and do not require further medical treatment.

The problem is that despite annual increases in calls to the center, some counties in Wisconsin continue to be underserved. These counties tend to be located in rural areas, where people are less likely to utilize the poison center phone number. “Farmers tend to ignore the symptoms of toxic exposure, saying ”I have work to do,” so another family member usually makes the call,” Lotzer said. Ignoring symptoms or self-treating can lead to serious problems and complications, though. “Treatment delayed can mean treatment complicated,” she said.

A call to the poison center is confidential, but the caller is usually asked for a phone number for follow-up phone calls. For instance, poison center staff may need to call back within 15 minutes to see if family members were able to flush chemicals from the eye or skin. If a medical referral is indicated, the nurse may call back several times over the course of several hours.

In the next two years, the poison center in Wisconsin, using federal grant money from the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will target 15 counties that are underserved in terms of the number of calls to the poison center. In southwest Wisconsin, the counties singled out for increased outreach and awareness are Crawford, Grant, Jefferson, Lafayette and Richland counties.

The value of contacting a poison center is hard to measure, but statistics for Wisconsin show that if a call is made promptly, most patients can be treated at home, saving more than $7.5 million in health care expenses annually.

“It is important that parents, grandparents, and other caregivers in a rural setting realize that the poison center provides objective management information,” Lotzer said. “Help is only a toll-free phone call away.”

For more information, visit the Poison Prevention and Education Center page on the UW Hospital website,