Poisons and Harmful Substances

Fire Chief

Stan Sharp
[email protected]
(865) 595-4480

Public Safety Complex
1630 Huron St., Bldg. C
Knoxville, TN 37917

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Each year thousands of people become injured or ill due to the effects of an unintentional exposure. In fact, poisoning is the leading cause of injury death in Tennessee.  This may occur by direct skin contact, inhalation, absorption or ingestion of the substance into the body.  In 2018, Tennessee Poison Center received 51,999 calls concerning harmful poison exposures.  Of these, 92 percent were from poison exposures and 8 percent were from information calls.  Although these occur in all age groups and socioeconomic strata, 50 percent of children less than five years of age were the most common poison victims.

Tennessee Poison Center is a free medical hotline with specially trained registered nurses, pharmacists and physicians that provide clinical advice and treatment advice 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  They can be called anytime to provide over the phone treatment advice and answer questions regarding a poison exposure.  In 2018, 66 percent of poison exposures were managed at home or at the site where the poison exposure occurred.  Ultimately saving Tennessee residents more than 10.4 million dollars in unnecessary emergency department visits for the uninsured.

• Call Tennessee Poison Center first in a poison emergency at 1-800-222-1222
• If the person is unresponsive, or having trouble breathing, call 9-1-1 immediately. 

Basic principles to consider

• There are generally no antidotes for most poisoning.
• Small children can get protective caps off bottles faster than most adults.
• Siblings share, even with pets.
• Children do not always admit the truth or truly know the amount ingested.
• Harmful substances are defined as chemicals, products and plants that threaten the safety of people and pets.
• Harmful chemicals commonly found in homes and schools include ammonia, bleach, dish soap, antifreeze, alcohol, insecticides, paint, petroleum products (kerosene and turpentine), herbicides, pesticides, drain cleaner, pine oil cleaner, spray cleaners, certain cosmetics, swimming pool additives, prescription and non-prescription medications, recreational drugs, tobacco products, mothballs and disc batteries among others.  Common harmful plant exposures include mushrooms, poinsettias and oleanders.
• A harmful exposure is not always identifiable unless the person involved tells someone, asks for help or behaves inappropriately.  Children are more likely not to tell an adult that they have swallowed some pills because they fear punishment.
• Adults then must learn to recognize a harmful exposure incident by carefully watching children in their care for signs of unusual odors or unusual behavior. The most obvious sign of a harmful exposure may be open pill bottles, plants that have obviously been chewed on or eaten from, open containers or a child complaining of a "tummy ache."  It is important when caring for children that an adult surveys the areas where children have access, especially high-risk areas such as the garage, kitchen or bathroom.
• Most harmful substance exposures in the toddler and child age groups occur when a youngster ingests an over-the-counter or prescription medicine such as cough medicine and cold preparations, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, Tylenol, aspirin and multi-vitamins.
• Adults most often have swallowed improperly stored liquids in glasses, bottles, jars and other containers accounting for the largest number of harmful substance exposures in that age group.

Survival Actions

• If a chemical or hazardous substance spill occurs, evacuate the area immediately, continued exposure to the substance may be harmful.  Call the Poison Help hotline. If a person swallows a chemical or household product, call the Poison Help hotline immediately for first aid instruction; 1-800-222-1222.
• If a person ingests any un-prescribed drug or overdoses on a medication, do not give them anything by mouth.  Call the Poison Help hotline.
• If the person of a suspected harmful substance exposure is found unresponsive or having trouble breathing, do not give anything by mouth. Call 9-1-1.
• If a harmful substance gets into the eyes, flush immediately with water.  Have the person blink frequently, but do not force the eyelid open.  If it is serious, call 9-1-1.  Otherwise, call the Poison Help hotline.
• If a harmful substance comes in contact with the skin, flush with water.  One exception is the chemical lime.  If this comes in contact with the skin, first dust the product off the skin to avoid a chemical burn and then flush with water and call the Poison Help hotline.  If it is serious, call 9-1-1.
• If a person inhales a harmful substance such as a pesticide spray, cleaning product or natural gas, call the Poison Help hotline.  Do not place yourself at risk. Open doors and windows to air the contaminated room or building.  If it is serious, call 9-1-1.
• If someone is stung by a scorpion, bee, wasp or bitten by a black widow spider, rattlesnake or an unidentified creature, call the Poison Help hotline.
• In general, if an exposure appears life threatening (the person is dizzy or weak, has a chemical burn, is unresponsive or having trouble breathing), call 9-1-1.  If the person is unconscious, do not give anything by mouth.  If it appears minor in nature, or additional advice is needed, call the Poison Help hotline at 1-800-222-1222

Preventing A Harmful Exposure

• Keep all harmful substances out of sight and reach and do not store them under the sink.  "Childproof" caps are not childproof.  They can be opened, given a child's remarkable resources and ability to explore.
• Install safety locks on all medicine cabinets, drawers and cupboards that store prescription medicine, over-the-counter drugs and vitamins, cleaning supplies, household chemicals, painting supplies, automotive fluids and oils, insecticides, pesticides and herbicides.
• Teach toddlers and young children to "always ask first" before touching or sampling something new.
• Never leave children alone with a harmful substance that the adult is using.
• Store household chemicals away from food to prevent contamination.  • Keep cleaning products and medications out of the kitchen.
• Many senior citizens request their prescription medicines not be packaged in "childproof" bottles.  Special precautions should be taken in households where young children and senior citizens live together.
• Do not take medications in front of children.  They may wish to mimic you, especially if the medication is designed to make you "feel better."
• Never tell a child medicine tastes like candy.
• Keep all medications in their original bottles.
• When taking or giving medicines at night, turn on a light to see what is being administered.  Be sure all medicines, cosmetics and personal care products are stored out of children's reach and not in nightstands or on dresser tops.
• To find out how to properly dispose of unwanted medicines, please click here.
• Other items, such as shampoo and mouthwash should be stored away from children because of their attractive smells and high alcohol content.
• A key should be kept available outside the bathroom if the door has a lock on it.
• Visitors to the home should use the same care in preventing harmful substance exposures.
• Suitcases should not be left open for children to explore.
• After adults have a party, all smoking materials including butts and ashes should be extinguished and discarded.  All unfinished alcoholic beverages should be poured down the drain.  Tobacco products and alcoholic drinks, even in small amounts, are dangerous to children and pets.  The garage and storage areas can contain weed killer, fertilizer, window cleaner, car wax, paint products, pool chemicals, antifreeze and other harmful substances.  Place them out of a child's reach and store them in their original, labeled container.
• When a chemical container is empty, rinse it out with water and replace the cap before throwing it away in a covered trash can.
• Know the names of the plants in your garden and lawn.  Keep a list handy in case a child or pet ingests one.  Remember, even common house plants may be harmful or deadly when swallowed.