America's small children are facing an unprecedented new threat. It's prompted thousands of calls to poison control centers, dire warnings from experts, congressional grandstanding and calls for new legislation.
I'm talking, of course, about laundry detergent pods.
A report in the fall found that the single-use laundry detergent packets, a relatively new invention, were sending kids to the hospital at a rate of roughly one per day. Taken in isolation, the numbers sound scary. There were more than 11,000 calls to poison control centers in 2013 for laundry detergent exposure from these pods, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers National Poison Data System. Seven people have died after ingesting laundry detergent from a pod, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation.
Quoted in the New York Times last year, Marshal J. Casavant of the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, characterized the laundry pod threat as "a very different order of magnitude than other hazards."
Actually no, it isn't.
Eleven thousand poison control center calls is a big number. On the other hand, in that same year there were also 11,000 calls related to pens and ink, 15,000 for air fresheners, 19,000 for deodorant, 20,000 for hand sanitizers and 40,000 for bleach. In the total universe of Things That Are Dangerous To Kids, calls about laundry pods rank somewhere between glue and soap.
Of course, some of these products are more common in homes than others. Nearly every household has deodorant, but fewer probably have air fresheners, and even fewer use laundry pods. But it's nonetheless clear that laundry pods do not constitute an unprecedented new threat to America's children.
Moreover, reports of laundry pod exposure rarely result in a serious medical emergency. Of the 11,000 laundry pod calls in 2013, 54 resulted in a major injury and two resulted in death — a rate of 0.51 percent. That's less than the major injury rate for acetaminophen (0.94 percent) and diphenhydramine (such as Benadryl, 0.74 percent), and comparable to the rates for rubbing alcohol (0.43) and laundry detergent as a whole (0.34).
It is true that that major injury rate as a percent of all exposures for laundry pods is higher than for other types of detergent or household cleaner — but again, we're talking about differences in the realm of fractions of a percent. And overall, accidental poisoning is not really that much of a danger to kids — especially compared with the leading causes of death among children.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 29 deaths due to accidental poisoning among children ages 1 to 4 in 2013. Firearms killed more than twice as many toddlers, other types of assault killed 10 times as many, and the No. 1 cause of death for small children was car accidents, with 454 fatalities.
Every death of a child is an unspeakable tragedy for the families involved. But too much of our public discourse about child safety is predicated on the fiction that we can make the world 100 percent safe for kids, if only we legislate a little harder or circumscribe our kids' worlds a little more tightly. You see this play out everywhere from the unfounded panic about marijuana-infused Halloween candy in Colorado to the repeated law enforcement interventions in the lives of Maryland's Meitiv family, who subscribe to the "free-range" parenting philosophy.
With laundry pods, as with every other household product, there will be some marginal level of risk involved. But the rules for dealing with laundry detergent, of any kind, shouldn't be different from the rules for any other product: Keep out of reach of children, especially small ones. And understand that the overall risk of injury or something terrible happening is vanishingly small.