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Hydrocarbons: The Deadly Poison Found in Everyone’s Home

More than half of all poisonings, well over one million in the United States each year, involve children under the age of six. Over 55,000 of these poisonings involve small children swallowing hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are a broad group of chemicals that contain hydrogen and carbon atoms. They are found in every home. Gasoline, kerosene, lamp oil and furniture oil are all examples of hydrocarbons.

If someone accidentally drinks a hydrocarbon product and it enters the lungs, breathing problems can develop. Serious injury or even death may result. Hydrocarbons are oily liquids. Many are not harmful unless the oily liquid gets into the lungs. When a hydrocarbon gets into the stomach, it usually passes through the body with little more than burping and an episode of diarrhea. However, if it enters the lungs, it can cause a pneumonia-like condition; irreversible, permanent lung damage; and even death.

Some hydrocarbons can cause other effects, including coma, seizures, irregular heart rhythms or damage to the kidneys or liver. Examples of products that contain dangerous hydrocarbons include some solvents used in paints and dry cleaning and household cleaning chemicals.

Many hydrocarbon products do not have child-resistant packaging. This increases the risk that children may drink them. Since 1993, CPSC is aware of five fatalities and an estimated 6,400 emergency room visits involving children under 5 years old who drank hydrocarbons. In 2002 the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) approved placement of child-resistant packaging on products containing ten percent or more of hydrocarbons. New packaging requirements allow companies twelve months to change their packaging. Therefore, these products may be in our home without child-resistant packaging.

Some examples of hydrocarbon-containing products:

This is just a partial list of hydrocarbon products.

  • Cosmetics - Baby, hair and bath oils; sunscreen; nail enamel dryers and makeup removers.
  • Cleaning Products - Cleaners (such as: wood oil, metal, adhesive and pine), spot remover and liquid furniture polish.
  • Automotive - Gasoline, kerosene, gasoline additives, fuel injection cleaners and carburetor cleaners.
Tips to help reduce the unintentional drinking of hydrocarbons:
  • Teach children about poisons at an early age.
  • Keep products in original containers, not food or drink containers. (Products such as gasoline and lamp oils are commonly found in the garage or storage areas in bottles other than the original containers.)
  • Put products away immediately after use.
  • Store cleaners, paints, pesticides and other dangerous products out of the reach of children and in a locked cabinet.
  • Post the Poison Control Center number (1- 800-222-1222) on or near the phone.
  • Do not wait for symptoms to occur. A good rule of thumb; if someone drank something and you are not sure if it is poisonous; call the Poison Center right away!