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Deaths Show Dangers of Household Chemicals

March 25, 2005

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Two jail inmates assigned to a maintenance crew died over the weekend from inhaling toxic fumes after mixing cleaning products, and advocates were left repeating common-sense mantras they say are all too commonly ignored. Don’t mix cleaning products. Wash your hands carefully after using each product. And read product warning labels and instructions.

``I think there is an awful lot of presumption that adults are reading the labels when they’re not,″ said Nancy Bock, vice president of education for The Soap and Detergent Association, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit trade group.

While poisonings involving household cleaning products are relatively common, accidental fatalities are not, said Chris Falk, spokesman for the American Association of Poison Conrol Centers.

In 2003, nearly 2.4 million people called poison centers after coming in contact with toxic substances by swallowing, breathing or touching them. About 225,000 of those calls involved household cleaning products, second only to poisonings from painkillers, including aspirin and acetaminophen.

Twenty-one people died from household cleaning products that year _ the most recent for which statistics are available. Fourteen of those were suicides, most involving drain or toilet cleaners, and one was a malicious poisoning. The other six were accidents.

Allegheny County Jail Warden Ramon Rustin said the county lockup has a policy detailing how to clean the jail and how much cleaning material to use. He wasn’t sure, however, what information was shared with inmates on cleaning crews and said that is one focus of an internal investigation. Jail officials are still trying to determine exactly what products mixed to cause the deadly fumes.

Amy Sartori, 31, of Pittsburgh, and Valeriya Whetsell, 50, of Wilkinsburg, died. Several other inmates had symptoms of dizziness and shortness of breath and coughed up blood.

Ginette Walker Vinski, program coordinator for the Pennsylvania Resources Council, a nonprofit environmental group with offices in Pittsburgh, said chlorine-based cleaners are especially hazardous.

``Bleach is the main culprit,″ Walker Vinski said. ``You never want to mix bleach with ammonia. You never want to mix bleach with acids.″ Even vinegar, which is commonly dissolved in water to clean windows, can unleash poisonous chlorine gas if it’s mixed with bleach.

``If you start to feel dizzy, or you start to feel shortness of breath or coughing, stop what you’re doing, get some ventilation, go outside and take a breath of fresh air,″ Walker Vinski said.

The council advocates using more environmentally friendly cleaners using borax, liquid soap or vinegar.

Walker Vinski said using household cleaners correctly is only half the battle; disposing of them properly is the other. Groups and agencies around the state have household hazardous waste pickup days where people can dispose of cleaning chemicals and other household hazards ranging from old gasoline to oil-based paints.

Bock, whose group represents 105 cleaning-product manufacturers, said mixing homemade cleaners can be dangerous if a person doesn’t understand the science behind the substances he is using. Further, she said commercial product labels must list instructions for treating people exposed to the chemicals, as well as a toll-free help line.

There is agreement, however, on how to use household cleaners safely.

``It’s really easy to identify potentially hazardous waste,″ Walker Vinski said. ``The labels will say ‘toxic,’ ‘caution’ or ‘warning.’ If an item is used the way it’s meant to be used, it should be generally safe.″


On the Net:

The Soap and Detergent Association: http://www.cleaning101.com

American Association of Poison Control Centers: http://www.aapcc.com

Pennsylvania Resources Council: http://www.prc.org

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