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Unintentional poisonings in adults are more common than you think

For Poison Prevention Week, the BC Drug and Information Centre is reminding the public that unintentional poisonings don’t just happen in children and can occur in adults too.
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Adults often think that poisonings only happen in children but 35% of unintentional poisoning calls to the BC Drug and Poison Information Centre (DPIC) are regarding adults. This year’s Poison Prevention Week, from March 20 to 26, will focus on poisonings in all ages, from babies to older adults and everyone in between.

From 2020 to 2021, there were 13,240 calls received by DPIC for unintentional poisonings in adults age 20 and older. Poisonings can happen anywhere including at home and in the workplace. Many poisonings can be prevented. 

“Unintentional poisonings can occur at any age and that’s why it’s important for everyone to learn about how to prevent poisonings and what to do if it happens,” said Debra Kent, Clinical Supervisor at DPIC. 

Common causes of unintentional poisoning in adults

Common substances reported for unintentional exposures in adult ages 20 to 59 include carbon monoxide, bleach and other cleaners. Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur at home with faulty furnaces or stoves or in workers using gas powered tools in unventilated areas. Poisonings also occur when handling or mixing cleaning chemicals that can cause chemical burns if splashed in the eyes or on the skin, or create irritating or toxic fumes if inhaled.

Unintentional poisonings may happen if medicines and chemicals are inappropriately stored or taken out of the original labeled container, like when a chemical is re-bottled in a food or drink container. A typical situation involves a person drinking from a beverage container without realizing that someone has used the bottle to store a chemical like cleaner or antifreeze. Mistakes can also happen if containers look similar such as someone confusing super glue for eye drops. 


In adults 60 and older, medication errors such as injecting the wrong insulin, or taking the wrong dosage of cardiovascular drugs or analgesics are common. These poisonings can happen when people are distracted while taking their medicine, leading to dosage errors. Poisonings can also occur in the middle of the night when people are tired and can easily make mistakes. 

“Dispatchers and paramedics frequently attend to patients with unintentional poisoning,” explains Brian Twaites, a paramedic specialist with BC Emergency Health Services. “We rely heavily on our colleagues at DPIC to provide expert advice on how best to care for those patients – whether that’s monitoring them at home, or transporting them to hospital.

Poison prevention and children

Young children who are at a stage where they are exploring the world around them can be poisoned by many common household items including cleaners, cosmetics, plants and mushrooms. The top 3 substances involved in poisoning in young children are acetaminophen products, ibuprofen and hand sanitizers. Young children are often curious and find inventive ways to open child-resistant containers or climb to areas we think are out of reach. 

Poison prevention tips

  • When using gas or wood burning appliances, ensure the room is well ventilated
  • Do not re-bottle medicine or chemicals in food or drink containers
  • Do not mix bleach with other cleaning products, as the mixture can cause toxic fumes
  • Always read the drug label before taking the medicine
  • Write down when you’ve taken a medicine to avoid double dosing 
  • Do not store medicines with other chemicals, as they can easily be confused
  • Ask your pharmacist to blister pack medications for ease of use and to avoid dosage errors
  • Dispose of expired or unused medications at your local pharmacy
  • Store medicine and chemicals up and away from children’s reach or even in a locked cupboard or tackle box
If you suspect someone has been poisoned, call the BC Drug and Poison Information Centre (DPIC) 24/7 at 1-800-567-8911. The toll free number is available in British Columbia and the Yukon. 




SOURCE: Unintentional poisonings in adults are more common than you think ( )
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