Laundry detergent injuries spiked immediately after pods came out. In 2011 there were 8,186 calls to poison-control centers regarding laundry detergent exposures among the entire population, according to the AAPCC; in 2013, that figure rose to 19,753. Emergency-department visits related to laundry detergent increased even more sharply. And each year since then, at least 85% of exposures and 79% of E.R. visits have involved children under age 6.
“The Tide Pod, as it’s designed, is an ideal product for attracting toddlers,” says Mariana Brussoni, a child psychologist at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital Research Institute. With laundry pods in general, “in terms of the colors they tend to have, the size, the feel, the fact that it can easily fit in their hands and their mouths—this is something that would be very appealing.”
Brussoni emphasizes that the risk would be greatest for children 1 or 2 years old, who are old enough to be mobile but too young to know what’s appropriate to eat. For kids that age, putting things in their mouth is “just another way of doing little experiments on the world,” and can also ease the pain of teething. Slightly older children, ages 3 and up, would be past that phase—but would recognize pods as looking like candy.
The most severe of the pod-ingestion cases have involved symptoms similar to the ones suffered by Bella Mancillas: An influx of fluid causes the lungs to flood and shut down, cutting off the flow of oxygen to the blood so severely that it can cause brain injuries such as seizures or comas. Some victims also suffer severe eye injuries from chemical burns.
There’s no consensus among health professionals as to precisely why pods have caused more serious injuries than liquid detergent has. One theory is that when the packets are bitten, their contents shoot into the throat with such force that they flow quickly down the trachea into the lungs. Another hypothesis is that the concentration of packets plays a role: Tide Pods, for example, have a 90:10 active-ingredient-to-water ratio, compared with about 50% water for liquid Tide. (Another complicating factor for health care workers: Manufacturers are not legally required to disclose all of their ingredients.)
When pods first came out and poison-control centers began getting calls, the centers followed the rules of liquid detergent poisoning: The person exposed was told to drink a bit of water, and the center would follow up after a half-hour, says Mark Ryan, president of the AAPCC. If there were no serious symptoms, the person exposed was not advised to go to a health care facility.
As poison centers increasingly witnessed severe injuries from pods, it became clear that those rules no longer applied. At the Louisiana Poison Control Center, which Ryan directs, he instructed call responders to follow up after only five to 10 minutes and monitor for respiratory issues. If those were detected, the caller was directed to go immediately to the nearest emergency room.
A few victims never got that far. Dennis Powers of Springfield, Ohio, was a kind, funny man who “never knew a stranger,” according to his daughter, Robyn. A Navy veteran and die-hard Ohio State Buckeyes fan, Dennis was diagnosed with dementia in 1999. He was still in relatively good physical health on Feb. 15, 2014, when his wife, Darlene, dropped off some groceries at home, including a pouch of Tide Pods, and went out to get more supplies.
When she returned a few hours later, Darlene says, she found Dennis slumped over the back of his white rocking chair. The chair was covered in orange dye, and there was detergent coming out of Dennis’s mouth. He barely had a pulse. Darlene called 911, but EMTs couldn’t revive Dennis and pronounced him dead at the scene. He was 67.
Dennis’s autopsy report declares that he died from asphyxiation resulting from ingesting a pod. Of the 31 pods that came in the pouch, five were missing: Two were found on the floor next to Dennis’s chair, one in a drinking glass, and one in the trash can; all appeared to have been chewed. The report concludes: “The remaining pod was not found.”
Recounting the incident at her lawyer’s office in Ohio, just before the fifth anniversary of Dennis’s death, Darlene struggles to keep her composure. The only reason that could explain why Dennis ate a pod, Darlene and Robyn say, is that they look like candy. “He was used to eating swirled Life Savers,” says Darlene.