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Calls keep poison center buzzing

January 10, 1997

By TERRY TALBERT

Staff Writer

Toxic frogs are no more of a challenge for the Maryland Poison Center than ordinary household cleaners.

The center's 24-hour hotline is staffed by nurses and doctors trained to handle the ill effects of those and other situation involving poisonings.

In 1995, the center got 54,144 calls. Of those, 18,134 were false alarms.

Of the 35,842 calls that did involve poisonings, 579 came from Washington County and 1,055 from Frederick County.

Last year, one of the calls to the center was from paramedics who needed information on how to treat a Frederick County resident who had fallen off his horse and into a nest of copperhead snakes. Timothy James, 31, was bitten five times. He eventually recovered.

The poison center is a division of the University of Maryland's School of Pharmacy and certified by the American Association of Poison Control Centers as a regional poison center for Maryland. It's been around for 25 years.

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Director of Operations Dr. Bruce Anderson said specialists reassure people when they are worrying unnecessarily, and tell them how to treat those who have actually been poisoned.

More than 80 percent of the calls the center got in 1995 came from residents, and more than 15 percent came from doctors and nurses. Emergency medical personnel, pharmacists and others accounted for the rest.

Anderson said more than 70 percent of the victims were successfully treated at home after center experts told caregivers what to do.

Between 50 and 60 percent of the victims are children under age 6 "who are getting into things in their own environment," Anderson said. "Say a child is helping mommy do laundry, and the phone rings. Mommy runs to get it. She's only gone a minute, but when she gets back, her child has gotten into the bleach."

"Children are very inquisitive. Sometimes they surprise their parents," Anderson said. "One woman had put her houseplants up high, but her child had somehow climbed up to them. He had reached new heights, so to speak. `I didn't know he could climb that high,' the mother said."

Houseplants, pesticides such as rat poison, household cleaning supplies, and cough and cold medications are the most common poisons children get into, Anderson said.

Anderson said while the majority of poisonings can be taken care of at home with center staff help, in more serious situations staff will advise callers to hang up and call 911, or get emergency help for them.

Anderson said the center gets its share of unusual calls.

One came from a pet shop owner. An employee had unloaded a shipment of poison-dart frogs by hand, not knowing the frogs secrete a neurotoxin through their skin, Anderson said.

The center has taken calls from police concerned about crack cocaine suspects who have swallowed the evidence, and from pet owners. One man called when his racehorse ate rat poison, Anderson said. "We get calls from people whose dogs have eaten a pound of chocolate. With animal calls we do the best we can. We're by no means experts."

The number of Americans who die of poisoning has dropped dramatically as a result of educational campaigns, child-proof packaging, and the work of poison centers nationwide, Anderson said.

Thirty years ago, 500 kids a year were dying from accidental poisoning. That number has dropped to about 30 a year, he said.

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