How to Clean Your Kitchen Without Poisoning Your Kid

Dr. Michael Lynch, Medical Director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center, has some tips and a lot of experience.

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Cleaning the kitchen requires both using and removing extremely toxic chemicals (probably while kids skate their be-socked way across wet floors). The good news for parents is that fears of poisoning via residual cleaners that remain after wiping counters are mostly unfounded. In fact, a little bleach spray moisture on a kitchen surfacer is unlikely to do any damage when a child comes into contact with it. The bad news is that cleaning materials are bad news if kids get their hands on them or, for that matter, their mouths — kids are weird.

Making sure cleaning products are secure and out of reach is the oldest rule in the book, but it’s hard to read the book and wrangle a kid at the same time. Doing so properly requires smart decision making. So, wipe up the chemicals first or get rid of the bottles? Turns out, storing the bottles should take priority.

“Where we see the most injury and potential for issues is less with residual cleaning product left after use and more with containers or packaging remaining out,” says Dr. Michael Lynch, Medical Director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center. “The concern, and where we see the most harm from chemicals, is what you would normally do to clean up and put it away, you get distracted and don’t do. Then an accident can happen faster than any of us can realize. You’re cleaning and one of your children has to go to the bathroom, so you have to help them and leave the cleaners on the counter. Distractions happen to all of us.”

How to Make Sure Kids Don’t Get Sick on Cleaners

  • Prioritize getting rid of chemical containers at all times, even if there are chemicals on the counter.
  • Be careful with chemicals packaged to resemble candy. Detergent pods, in particular, can put curious (and hungry) kids at risk.
  • Get the drain cleaner out of the kitchen. It’s dangerous.

All chemicals — including bottles marked organic, which can still be harmful when ingested or inhaled due to their oils and compounds — should ideally be kept inside a cabinet with secure child locks. Some chemicals, Lynch says, shouldn’t even be stored in the kitchen due to their extreme toxicity. For instance, he recommends keeping the drain cleaner away from the drain cleaners. Rust remover is also a culprit. It contains the same hydrofluoric acid Walter White used to dissolve bodies in Breaking Bad (which Lynch says was actually shockingly accurate).

Chemicals should also be stored in their proper packaging, which seems relatively logical, though it’s not uncommon for people to transfer some agents into different packaging, such as putting cleaners and detergents in unmarked spray or squeeze bottles or old juice containers. Some colorful detergent might not look enticing in a boring bottle. But throw some purple cleaner in a Gatorade bottle — which Lynch says happens more often than one might expect — and suddenly the leap in childish logic suddenly makes sense … it’s one step short of writing “drink me” on the bottle.

“It poses a specific danger to kids who don’t know better and go and get these purple and blue and green liquids that look interesting or like juices,” says Lynch.

Bottles aren’t the only delicious looking cleaners in the kitchen, either: Detergent pods strongly resemble candy, leading to a rise in children popping them into their mouths. They should be used one at a time: Dropped into washing machines, which should then be closed and activated.

Inhalation, too, can pose serious danger to kids in the kitchen. That includes organics, which contain oils harmful to lungs. Even more alarming is the mixing of common cleaning products can create toxic fumes, especially bleach and ammonia, which produces a noxious gas called chloramine that causes coughing, chest pains, and possibly pneumonia.

Lynch emphasizes that attentive parents can prevent catastrophe simply by keeping their wits about them, and shouldn’t stress the dangers of simply using cleaning products responsibly. “Most of these chemicals evaporate, soak in, or you wipe them away. There’s really no immediate potential for harm to a child just because a product has been used,” he says.

Still, better safe than sorry. If there’s any fear at all that a child has ingested or been affected by a chemical, parents are urged to do the same thing that the majority of ER doctors do in a situation where a chemical may have been ingested: Call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 or Text POISON to 797979. It’s a parental lesson repeated ad nauseam, but one that should almost become instinct, especially in an age of tasty-looking washing machine pods.

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