Be more vigilant this festive season : Rising household poisoning | Sunday Observer

Be more vigilant this festive season : Rising household poisoning

The recent news items of an employee of a leading supermarket in Colombo spraying insecticide inside a coffee vending machine should serve as an eye opener for all who patronize take away food outlets and eateries.

“ It’s just the tip of the iceberg of what is actually taking place in most supermarkets “, says former Poisons Information Unit head National General Hospital Dr Waruna Gunathillake. It should not be regarded as an isolated occurrence.”

Dr Waruna Gunathillake

In this context it is pertinent to question the methodology of pest control in all supermarkets in Sri Lanka, he points out.

“You will not see any pests in the deli section, bakery, meat department or under shelves in supermarkets. Why? The secret is that these stores strictly control the pests by various methods often resorting to chemical control, sometimes, completely dependent on chemical control methods to get rid of pests, such as, cockroaches, ants, rats, moths, etc. He said,”Whatever the chemical control method, the procedure should be strictly surveyed and monitored to safeguard human health.


Pointing out gaps, he noted that the incident, “Reflects the weakness and ignorance of the current system of surveillance. The lack of employee education also matters.”

“We often see small scale retailers being fined and penalized due to the way they prepare, handle and distribute their food . SUPERMARKETS should also be made accountable since we are talking about public health, which is everybody’s concern,” he stressed.

“In that sense, it is high time to question the pest control methods in leading supermarkets”.

Periodic monitoring

He noted, the country also needs a proper system of periodic monitoring of supermarkets to ensure the safety of commodities which sell consumer products to the public. “Since chemicals are being used to attack pests, in these supermarkets, chemical analysis of food items(toxic residue level) is also important,” he emphasized.

Household poisoning study by the National Poison Center

We asked him about household poisoning which often tended to spike during a festive season.

According to him, an islandwide study, said to be the first of its kind, had been undertaken recently, in which data was collected by the Center via telephone inquiries. “We collected data from the public as well as hospital medical professionals. It is an on going data collection system.”

Asked about the feedback, he said, “Current data indicate an upward trend in household poisoning. For the last four years, (since 2013) we observed a sequential gradual rise of household agent poisoning.

“However, we believe the figures are much higher as it is still under reported . It was also difficult to keep track of some of the cases as not every case was reported to the poison Centre.”

Most reported cases

Most of the reported cases related to the exposure of household chemicals, he revealed.

Shockingly, leading the rest were detergent and cleaners which ranked number one.

In second place was rodenticides (rat killers). This was followed by mosquito coils and insect repellents. Others included thinner, wood preservative and “kapuru bola”(moth balls) poisoning, also important in this backdrop.

Were they accidental poisoning or deliberate? We asked.

“Accidental exposure is commoner than deliberate exposure”, he said.

Who were most at risk to household poisoning?

“There are two risk groups who are more vulnerable than the others. Children under 14 years who ranked number one in unintentional exposure. And, adults from 20 to 60 years of age (intentional exposure).

Was there a difference in the numbers of callers compared to previous years?

“In contrast to previous years the number of calls from the general public had substantially increased. What is more tragic is that the highest number of victims were males.

Reasons for high incidence on household poisoning.

Listing the reasons for this increase, he mentioned the following:

1.The fact that more chemical agents were now freely and abundantly available. Hence, their usage is now much more frequent than before.

2.Easy accessibility. Due to this more toddlers were becoming victims as they could easily reach towards chemical agents placed within their reach by ignorant or careless parents.

3.Lack of proper storage also put young children’s lives at risk.

4.Eye catching colour, smell and shape of chemical components also attract children.

Drawing attention to a little publicized fact, he said rat killer pellets should not be made in bright colours, as young children could mistake them for tiny sweets . He further warned that unregistered substandard RAT KILLERS (meepasanum,) agents were widely available in the local market, and charged that they were mostly imported from India. “’Consumers should pay attention to producers’ name and registration number on the label, as most of these products do not have these details”, he emphasized.

Inhalation of toxic fumes

Inhaling toxic fumes can also be deadly , he pointed out referring to several health problems which could arise from toxic fumes entering the lungs.

“Fume from mosquito coil burning is toxic. It aggravates bronchial asthma, causes long term chronic obstructive pulmonary airway disease, and in infants it could cause convulsions and brain toxicity.

If they have to be used, it is better to avoid closed spaces and open the windows to allow proper ventilation. Even in mosquito controlling fumigation, it is safer to avoid direct exposure to the fumes. Use face masks and try to avoid the fumigation area when it is taking place.”


Pointing out gaps in the existing methods of fumigation, he said, “ideally the public should be informed prior to such a procedure and safety measures should be put in place. Indiscriminate fumigation should be discouraged at all cost, as it is injurious to health,” he stressed.

Environmental air pollution risk

On Environmental air pollution risks, he said, air quality testing should be performed in at least the designated areas /streets. Air pollution is a recognized risk factor for most non communicable diseases. Burning of plastic, polythene and take away rïgifoam boxes in close vicinity to residences should also be discouraged. Burning emanates toxic fumes, and toxicity is more towards infants and old persons.

Ornamental Plants Toxicity

He also noted that some ornamental plants have been found to have toxic properties in their stems and leaves. “Before you buy a plant get to know about it and study its properties carefully. Small children, especially, are very vulnerable when they accidentally bite off stems/leaves of toxic plants. This could cause mouth ulceration, blistering, and severe allergic reactions. It is advisable therefore to keep those plants away from their access.