Findings: What young children see when they look at poisons

Findings: What young children see when they look at poisons

May 03, 2015
By Matt Windsor
Poisoning sends tens of thousands of American children to the hospital each year. But new research from UAB's Youth Safety Lab shows what manufacturers — and parents — can do to change those numbers.

The bottle of citronella tiki torch fuel sure looked tasty. The toddler was on a family campout to celebrate his second birthday. He got his hands on the container and took a sip.

“A few hours later, he was dead,” said David Schwebel, Ph.D., associate dean for Research in the Sciences in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences and professor in the Department of Psychology. “The product is highly toxic; it aspirates the lungs and makes it hard to breathe.”

Tiki Torch fuelThis bottle of tiki torch fuel, along with the bottles shown in the rest of this story, were part of a series of experiments in Schwebel's Youth Safety Lab designed to study how pre-literate children decide whether or not to consume dangerous liquids.

Schwebel, who directs UAB’s Youth Safety Lab, was a consultant on a lawsuit brought by the boy’s family. That led him to begin research “on how pre-literate children decide what to consume,” he said. “These are young children. They can’t read, so they are looking at the shape of the bottle, the colors, the pictures and whatever cues are available to them.”

Most toddlers can’t give a clear description of the reasoning behind their actions. So Schwebel’s team recruited more than 200 children for a series of studies in the Youth Safety Lab. The researchers watched as kids from 18 months to 4.5 years interacted with several different types of objects, including teddy bears and other toys, harmless drinks such as apple juice, and potential poisons in a range of containers and packaging. (The actual substances used were all harmless.)

The researchers identified a number of visual cues that attract children — and cues that warn them of danger. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, Schwebel’s team translated these findings into distinct steps manufacturers could adopt to reduce the risk of accidental poisonings. The paper also lists ways parents can protect their children.

“These findings have implications for policymakers, industry and parents,” Schwebel said. He is now seeking grant funding for a large, interdisciplinary effort to extend these findings, including public health experts, physicians and engineers to study optimal product packaging and other ways to prevent child poisoning.

“These findings have implications for policymakers, industry and parents.”

Preventing poisonings: Three things manufacturers could do

Put products in opaque packaging. Children are more likely to recognize dark or black bottles as something dangerous, Schwebel found. The citronella product “looks a lot like a bottle of apple juice,” he said. “And if you’re a 2-year-old, and you like apple juice as much as my kids do, that will be very tempting.”

tifi fuel black bottle

Put products in squared rather than rounded bottles. Children in Schwebel’s studies were more likely to identify squared bottles as something to be avoided.

mix square bottle

Use plain, black-and-white labels rather than colored labels. Images of unappealing insects also helped children understand that the contents were dangerous.

Ant Killer


Preventing poisonings: Two things parents can do

In the meantime, Schwebel has two main pieces of advice to parents. “All of us have dangerous products in our houses,” he said. “Parents need to be aware that many of these products are packaged in a way that can be misleading. Window cleaner, for example, might look a lot like a drink.”

Keep away: One way to handle this, Schwebel said, “is to store these products safely — put them in high places where young children, who are at higher risk, can’t reach. And use cabinet locks if you need to store them in a lower place.”

Keep watch: Generally, “teaching can be an effective way to prevent accidents with children, but you can’t rely on that with young kids,” Schwebel added. “With young children, supervision has to be constant. That’s hard to do, I know; but a poisoning can happen very quickly. You need to figure out a way to keep your child safe even when your attention is distracted by something in the oven or if the doorbell rings, for example.”

Poisons and Kids

  • Poisoning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional child death in the United States.
  • 50,000-plus annual hospital visits by children under 5 years are caused by poisoning.
  • 1.1 million-plus inquiries to poison-control centers in the United States each year about potential poisonings in children under 5.

Protecting Kids

  1. Put all poisons out of reach of children or behind locked cabinet doors.
  2. Maintain close supervision of young children at all times.
  3. Know the number for your local poison-control center.

Source: “Children’s Recognition of Dangerous Household Products: Child Development and Poisoning Risk,” Journal of Pediatric Psychology, March 2015