Plant food—also known as plant fertilizer—is commonly used on plants in homes or gardens. Such fertilizers keep plants healthy and allow them to grow faster.
Plant foods can be hazardous to people and pets through physical contact, inhalation, or accidental ingestion. It is safe to use fertilizers on nonedible plants, but you should always be cautious when handling and storing them. If you want to fertilize edible plants, you should ask a professional for advice about which products to buy.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ annual report, there were nearly 2,000 reported cases of poisoning from indoor household plant fertilizer in 2010 (AAPCC, 2010). Including the instances caused by outdoor and unknown fertilizers raises the number to 6,300 cases in 2010 (AAPCC, 2010).
The majority of cases were accidental poisonings in children under 5 years of age.
Plant fertilizers can poison people and pets if they are inhaled or accidentally ingested. Touching the fertilizer may cause skin irritation, and ingesting it may be poisonous. The ingredients that cause the poisoning are nitrates.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nitrates are a form of nitrogen that plants can easily absorb. Nitrogen is essential for plant growth, but it can be very dangerous when present at high levels in humans. Within our bodies, nitrates lower the ability of the red blood cells to carry and deliver oxygen (EPA, 2012).
If you come into physical contact with plant fertilizers, you may develop the following symptoms:
- skin redness
- burning sensation on the skin
- itchy skin
- burning of the nose, eyes, or throat
If you ingest plant fertilizers, you may have these symptoms:
- body parts (such as your fingernails, lips, or hands) turning blue from lack of oxygen
- low blood pressure
- shortness of breath
- upset stomach or stomach pain
If you believe you have been poisoned by plant food, you should call the national poison control center immediately. The number is (800)-222-1222. You should also seek medical help. When the paramedics arrive, be sure to tell them:
- which fertilizer you were exposed to
- whether it was inhaled, ingested, or touched
- how much of the material you came in contact with
- when the contact occurred
If the plant food was inhaled, get fresh air immediately.
If the plant fertilizer is in your eyes or on your skin, flush thoroughly with water for at least 15 minutes.
If you ingested the substance, do not induce vomiting unless the poison control center says that you should. You should drink water or milk, unless the poison control center advises against it. Don’t drink anything if you are vomiting. This could lead to choking or drowning. The same guidelines apply if you are providing care to a poisoning victim who is vomiting or unconscious.
The poison control center may advise you to go to the hospital. Once there, the staff will assess the severity of your poisoning.
They may run tests to check for methemoglobinemia. In this condition, the nitrate binds to the hemogoblin in your blood. Normally, hemogoblin is the compound that allows the blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body. When you have methemoglobinemia, your blood cannot adequately circulate oxygen, causing a bluish tint in the oxygen-starved areas. Since methemoglobinema is more common in infants, it is sometimes called “blue-baby syndrome.”
If necessary, doctors at the hospital may give you medications, breathing support, or liquids intravenously.
Your ability to recover from plant food poisoning depends on the following factors:
- what type of fertilizer you came into contact with
- how much fertilizer you inhaled, ingested, or touched
- how much time passed before you sought medical help
The quicker you seek help, the better your chances of recovery. Remember to always call your doctor or the poison control center if you think you or a loved one may be suffering from plant food poisoning. It can be fatal if not treated promptly.