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.