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First the good news! Child deaths from poisoning have decreased. Now the bad news! Child deaths from poisoning are still alarmingly high. In 1987, the poisoning of 731,954 children under six years of age were reported to poison control centers. Of these children, 22 died and 107,844 became ill. Accidental poisonings are the cause of nearly 5,000 deaths yearly. Although all age groups are at risk, children under the age of five account for more than 50 percent of the 2.5 million reported poisoning cases each year. Studies indicate that by the age of five there is a 40 percent chance that a child has ingested some type of poison.

For every child hospitalized due to poisoning, six to eight children are released after emergency treatment. For every child treated at a hospital emergency department, there are an estimated 13 more exposures reported to poison control centers not needing medical attention.The good news about childhood poisoning death reduction has come from safety packaging, child resistant caps and labeling.

The three leading poisoners of children under age five are medications, house plants and household cleaning agents. Children get involved with these items because they can't read warning labels. Moreover, they explore new things with their mouths. Older children learn by imitation.

An estimated 90 percent of all accidental poisonings occur in the home or in a caretaker's (e.g., grandparent's or friend's) home. This should not be a surprise since that is where children spend most of their time. One study found that 13 percent of cases were away from the home. Though fewer poisonings occur away from home, these locations are still dangerous, and children should be closely supervised.

Grandparents' homes pose special problems. First, syrup of ipecac, if needed, is less likely to be found there; and second, more toxic drugs and medications are more often located there.

A safer environment can prevent poisonings. Adults should keep hazards out of children's reach. Toxic pesticides and cleaning materials should be stored away from food. Ant and roach killers are sweetened to attract bugs and should be used with care.

Never take medications in front of children or tell them medicine is candy. Occasionally clean out your medicine cabinet and dispose of expired medications or those no longer being taken.

Keep all children's vitamins and minerals off the table or countertop. If eaten like candy, a child can be poisoned from an overdose of iron.

House plants are the leading cause of poisoning in children under one year of age. Keep all plants off the floor where children can get to them and chew the leaves. Many seeds and berries are also harmful if swallowed.

Should a poisoning occur, call the poison control center. Its telephone number is on the front inside cover of telephone directories. More than 70 percent of poisonings can be handled by instructions from a health care professional over the telephone.

- Alton Thygerson is a professor of health sciences at Brigham Young University.