A total of 21,154 calls were made in 2020 to Israel’s Poison Information Center at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa with urgent queries related to possible unintentional poisonings in their babies, children and teens up through the age of 18.
The Poison Information Center is a branch of the Ministry of Health. It is the national center and the only service of its kind in the country that provides expert advice on poisonings to the healthcare system and the general public.
The telephone hotline is available 24/7 for inquiries related to poisonings (clinical toxicology), drug information (clinical pharmacology) and the effects of drugs, chemicals and other poisons during pregnancy and lactation (reproductive toxicology).
The center also operates at a national level in the area of poisoning prevention and preparation in the event of mass poisoning, as well as consulting to government agencies such as the ministry and the Medical Corps.
The Israel Poison Information Center is also academically oriented, providing lectures to medical students, residents, nurses and pharmacists. In addition, the center is involved in research of poisonings and has an ongoing collaboration with health care facilities, universities and international professional organizations.
The center’s service is available free and is manned by professional toxicologists and other medical experts.
The report, released by the Health Ministry, said that 54% of all the queries related to this age group and the rest adults. About 49% of the calls are related to pharmaceuticals, 36% to chemicals and five percent to poisonous plants and venomous animals.
Some 55% of all the queries by parents and others regarding child poisonings involved babies, toddlers and preschool children up to the age of six. Of the total through the age of six, 9,941 related to boys and7,849 to girls, with the gender in the remaining cases unknown. This is a significant difference, meaning that young boys are at higher risk.
But in the 13 to 18 age group, 61.3% of the cases of possible poisonings involved girls. In the age group of six to 13, the trend was the opposite, with 60.1% involving boys.
Swallowing something that could be poisonous was by far the most common subject of the query, with 15,277 calls involving babies through preschoolers. A minority of these involved eyes, inhalation, skin, rectal, snake or insect bites, injections and others. But even older children swallow things that may be poisonous. There were 887 such cases in the 13 to 18 age group.
By far, one’s own home was the site of the possible poisonings. A total of 97.8% of the events (almost 17,000) took place at home, with the minority occurring away from home, including day care centers, kindergartens and schools; medical facilities, workplaces and the beach.
Almost a fifth of possible poisoning cases involving all children resulted from errors in use or treatment, with the rest from bites, accidents, environmental exposure and inedible food.
But although most queries were about unintentional poisonings, there were – shockingly –15 cases of attempted suicide in children aged 6 to 13 and 325involving children aged 13 to 18. Possible poisoning due to drug use involved 25 teens aged 13 to 18; queries on a total of nine cases involved intentional exposure to poisons (one up to the age of six, two in the six to 13 age group and nine in the 13 to 16 age group).
The previous report issued by the ministry’s Poison Information Center covered 2018 and was issued the following year. Amazingly, the data on the number and subjects of queries on child poisonings were very similar.
There was no significant decline in cases in 2020, despite the work of Beterem (Safe Kids Israel), a 25-year-old voluntary organization that works hard to reduce child harm from accidents. The proverbial Israeli love for its precious children does not prevent unintentional accidents that kill an average of 116 Israeli children – the equivalent of four school classes – per year. Carelessness, inadequate supervision, lack of education and even being too busy with one’s cellphone are responsible for this horrendous toll.
After accidents at home, nearby or on the road, accidental choking is the second most common cause of death in children. Babies and toddlers are especially susceptible to choking on such objects because they put everything in their mouths to become more familiar with it and don’t distinguish between food and other objects. In addition, their choke mechanism to prevent objects from going down the trachea is less developed than in older children and adults.
In Israel alone, more than 500 children per day are taken to hospital emergency rooms to be treated for accidents in or near the home or on the road. About a third of the cases are fatal.
Accidental deaths involving children here are often linked to certain Jewish holidays. Before Passover, parents are busy cleaning the house to remove leaven and in general do spring cleaning. As children are off from kindergarten and schools during the week before the holiday, some young children have been poisoned on cleaning products or drowned in pails with water. Before Succot (the Feast of Tabernacles), when parents are occupied building temporary booths, some children have been hurt and even died from nails, board and climbing ladders.
During Hanukka, the festival of lights, some children have been hurt by burning candles, and during Purim, when children masquerade in costumes, some have suffered burns when flammable costumes burn. On Independence Day, spray foam can burn eyes, and cap pistols explode or cause damage to eyes and ears when children are unsupervised.
Arab – and especially Beduin – children in various parts of the country suffer more than the average Jewish child from unintentional harm, as parents have reversed their cars when not seeing their children playing on unpaved roads and run over them. Others fall from roofs or climb on electrical poles because of an inadequate number of playgrounds in many neighborhoods.
Although the Health Ministry has spent huge amounts of money in the last 18 months on incessant public service announcements relating to COVID-19 vaccinations, wearing masks, keeping one’s distance and avoiding crowded indoor spaces, and there have been frequent public service messages on drowning since the swimming season began, the ministry has not sponsored any messages to educate the public on preventing accidental poisoning. No comment was available from the ministry to explain why.