Laundry may now be a snap thanks to detergent pods, but their convenience belies a growing danger for children. New research from Nationwide Children’s Hospital shows that from 2012 to 2013, U.S. poison control centers received reports of 17,230 children younger than 6 swallowing, inhaling, or otherwise being exposed to chemicals in detergent pods. During this time, 769 children were hospitalized and one child died.

The sobering report will serve as a reminder to families about safely storing household chemicals, and as a warning to manufacturers to improve child-resistant packaging.

Why Are Pods More Dangerous Than Detergent Bottles?

The design of pods in particular has led experts to think that they pose unique risks to children compared to detergent packaged in a bottle or box.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, “poison center experts say the new highly concentrated single-load liquid laundry detergent packets seem to be different.” Whereas a child might need to ingest several spoonfuls of liquid or powdered detergent to reach a potentially lethal dose (or be turned off by the foul taste), a concentrated pod packs a huge punch in a bite-sized packet.

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Why Children Like Laundry Pods

Where adults see a handy fix for a common chore in laundry detergent pods, young children see intriguing, and perhaps edible, playthings.

"Laundry detergent pods are small, colorful, and may look like candy or juice to a young child," said Dr. Marcel J. Casavant, study co-author, the chief of toxicology at Nationwide Children's Hospital, and medical director of the Central Ohio Poison Center, in a press release. "It can take just a few seconds for children to grab them, break them open, and swallow the toxic chemicals they contain, or get the chemicals in their eyes."

The consequences of laundry detergent pod exposure are serious. Researchers found that almost half of children vomited after exposure, and coughing or choking, eye pain or irritation, drowsiness or lethargy, and red eye were other common side effects.

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What Companies Can Do to Make Products Safer

The harder it is for children to get their hands into laundry detergent pod packages, the safer they will be. Containers with special locks, zippers, or fasteners are all feasible solutions.

But there’s also the matter of how these pods look. The appeal of laundry detergent pods for kids is largely in their design. Creating packaging that is opaque or doesn’t include pictures of the product inside is another possibility for manufacturers.

Tide, one of the most popular laundry detergent manufacturers, provides consumers with tips on its website for keeping pods out of the hands of children. However, consumer advocates still put the onus on companies to make packaging that children can’t break into. 

"It is not clear that any laundry detergent pods currently available are truly child resistant; a national safety standard is needed to make sure that all pod makers adopt safer packaging and labeling," said Dr. Gary Smith, DrPH, the study's senior author and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in a press release.

What You Can Do to Keep Your Children Safe

Liquid or powdered detergent is recommended for households with young children, but families can still take steps to protecting curious little ones if pods are the preferred method of doing laundry.

Keeping pods completely out of sight in cupboards or on shelves high above a child’s reach is key. If the pods are in see-through packaging, transfer them into a childproof container that is also stored out of sight. 

If kids can’t see and easily access laundry detergent pods, they’ll have no reason to taste or play with them. And of course, teaching children what is safe to eat or play with, in general, is a smart preventive measure.