Waking up up in the middle of the night, thirsty and only barely awake, you fling an arm over to your nightstand to grab a bottle of water, only to bolt up in bed a moment later, realizing that instead of sipping H2O, you guzzled hydrogen peroxide. (Never mind why you have a bottle of hydrogen peroxide on your nightstand!) This is just one example of thousands of cases called in to the Illinois Poison Center on its 24-hour, toll-free hotline.
Najja Howard, communications and outreach specialist for the Illinois Poison Center, explains that there are 57 poison centers in the U.S. The IPC is responsible for about 12.9 million citizens in the state of Illinois, making it the largest center in the nation.
Despite its broad scope, the organization has a highly regimented method for treating poison victims. Dr. Michael Wahl, IPC medical director, describes what to expect when phoning the hotline. The first step involves answering standard questions concerning the poison victim’s age and weight, in addition to the name and quantity of the ingested substance.
“We must determine if the person took enough of the substance for it to be poisonous,” Dr. Wahl explains. “Even water and oxygen can be poisonous if enough is ingested.” Howard notes that personal information, such as social security number and insurance coverage, do not need to be provided. After these preliminary questions, the caller then speaks with some of the top toxicologists in the area who assess the situation and determine a plan of action.
Due to the vast range of calls IPC receives each day, the cases that the workers must field are as variable and unpredictable as the people who contact them. Howard pinpoints 6pm to 12am as one of IPC’s busiest timeframes. “People are just getting home to eat dinner,” says Howard, “and they are in a rush to relax.” Real-life examples of incidents during this time include:
- A one year old nibbling on a recently discovered AA battery
- An entire family poisoned by brownies accidentally made with Pine Sol instead of vegetable oil
- A cosmetically curious four-year old swallowing half a tube of lipstick
- A child given 12 clonidine pills instead of a half when the babysitter misread the prescription
- An adult ingesting an unknown number of bolts, nuts and screws, called in by the ER.
Dr. Wahl explains that one of the most interesting aspects of working at IPC is seeing the trend of substances being abused. He recounts that a type of synthetic marijuana, K2, posed a prominent threat until recently, when it became illegal in Illinois. Now, he battles with calls concerning another synthetic drug called bath salts, a hallucinogenic stimulant that remains legal in Illinois. As Dr. Wahl and his associates analyze the growing dangers of this product, they gather statistics to present to state legislators in an effort to make it illegal and cut down on the number of its victims.
Despite the immense workload IPC tackles each day, their funding was recently cut by 25 percent. Howard reveals that this devastating reduction has resulted in reducing call center staff, education initiatives and a medical director position. IPC now faces longer waiting queues for callers and overworked staff members.
BY THE NUMBERS
20% of all callers are healthcare professionals seeking advice for their patients
52% of calls are about children of ages five and younger
90% of poison exposure cases were treated on-site
$700-$1,100: Approximate amount of money you will save by calling IPC instead of going to the hospital
92,471: Number of calls IPC fielded in the past year.
Source: Illinois Poison Center