Jun 1, 2018

Poison Control

When reporter Brenna Farrell was a new mom, her son gave her and her husband a scare -- prompting them to call Poison Control. For Brenna, the experience was so odd, and oddly comforting, that she decided to dive into the birth story of this invisible network of poison experts, and try to understand the evolving relationship we humans have with our poisonous planet. As we learn about how poison control has changed over the years, we end up wondering what a place devoted to data and human connection can tell us about ourselves in this cultural moment of anxiety and information-overload.

Call the national Poison Help Hotline at 1-800-222-1222 or text POISON to 797979 to save the number in your phone.

This episode was reported by Brenna Farrell and was produced by Annie McEwen.

Special thanks to Wendy Blair Stephan, Whitney Pennington, Richard Dart, Marian Moser Jones, and Nathalie Wheaton. Thanks also to Lewis Goldfrank, Robert Hoffman, Steven Marcus, Toby Litovitz, James O'Donnell, and Joseph Botticelli.  

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.

 

Further Reading: 

The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum

The Poison Squad, by Deborah Blum

Illinois Poison Center’s latest “A Day in the Life of a Poison Center” post

You can find out more about the country’s 55 poison centers at the American Association of Poison Control Centers, including a snapshot of the latest available from the National Poison Data System (2106)

"Poison Politics: A Contentious History of Consumer Protection Against Dangerous Household Chemicals in the United States," by Marian Moser Jones: 

2011 article from The Annals of Emergency Medicine: "The Secret Life of America's Poison Centers," Richard Dart 

A 1954 article from Edward Press -- one of the key figures in creating a formalized poison control system in Chicago in the early 1950s, Press and Gdalman are credited with starting the first poison control center in the US in 1953 in Chicago: "A Poisoning Control Program" Edward Press and Robert B Mellins 



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Jad:

Wait, wait you're listening (laughs)

 

Brenna Farrell:

Okay.

 

Jad:

All right.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Okay.

 

Jad:

All right.

 

Brenna Farrell:

You're...

 

Jad:

... listening...

 

Brenna Farrell:

... to Radiolab.

 

Robert:

Radiolab.

 

Brenna Farrell:

From...

 

Jad:

... WNYC.

 

Brenna Farrell:

C?

 

Jad:

Yep.

 

Jad:

Uh, hello.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Hello. Jad. (laughs)

 

Jad:

Brenna Farrell.

 

Brenna Farrell:

How are you? (laughs)

 

Jad:

How the hell are you?

 

Brenna Farrell:

Oh my God. Uh, great? (laughs)

 

Jad:

(laughs) Wow.

 

Brenna Farrell:

It's, I feel like I'm literally talking to another world.

 

Jad:

I'm Jad.

 

Robert:

I'm Robert.

 

Jad:

This is Radio Lab-

 

Brenna Farrell:

(laughs)

 

Jad:

... and today, we are reconnecting with an old producer of ours, Brenna Farrell.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Yeah. Past life.

 

Robert:

Who, since leaving Radio Lab, she's been busy with work.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Jad:

But also-

 

Brenna Farrell:

Raising two kids is crazy hard.

 

Jad:

... with family.

 

Brenna Farrell:

I'm just trying to, like, take my vitamins and, like, exist on a low grade panic attack-

 

Jad:

(laughs)

 

Brenna Farrell:

(laughs) ... all day.

 

Robert:

Well, I guess we should start by, let's just try to recall, like, what it was that's, what, I don't even know how you bumped in, I, you don't normally-

 

Brenna Farrell:

Okay. So, back in 2015, my husband Nick and I were in our tiny apartment back in Brooklyn and we were new parents. Our son, Marty, was 18 months old at the time and, um, one morning, I think it was about 5 a.m., like, still dark, Marty woke up and he was just, you know, crying, crying, crying and so I tapped my husband. It was his turn to get up early and go get Marty. So he got out of bed. I fell right back to sleep.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And the next thing I knew, I was, like, felt somebody tapping me and I sort of rolled over in my bed and there was just this little person looking up at me, covered in this greasy stuff all over. His face was shiny and here was laughing and he held up in his hand this giant jar of diaper ointment, this special medicated stuff that we had bought just that last week and I just thought, "Oh my God. He just ate all this medicine and I have no idea how much he ate."

 

Brenna Farrell:

And I look around and my husband, who had gotten up with him, changed his diaper and, like, put him down on the floor to play, had, because he was exhausted, fallen asleep in the chair while watching him. So, I just flung myself to the edge of the bed and I grabbed Marty in one arm and started frantically searching the label-

 

Jad:

Which was filled with words like petrolatum, cerecin, panthenol, glycerin, bisabolol. But Brenna says she didn't register any of those words, because right underneath that list of ingredients-

 

Brenna Farrell:

... I just saw this bold type that said, uh, "If swallowed, call your doctor or Poison Control Center immediately." And so I'm clutching my son and I'm clutching this jar and then I yelled to my husband to wake him up and I'm like, "I need you to find the number and call Poison Control while I hold Marty." And so Nick snaps into action.

 

Jad:

Leaps off the chair into the other room-

 

Brenna Farrell:

So he can make the call.

 

Jad:

... and Brenna is left sitting there on the bed holding her 18-month-old son who is about to, what, throw up, pass out, die? She's not sure.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Like, have you ever felt that hollow feeling where, like, your whole chest just, huh, drops and you just, it's like, it feels like missing a step. You're just like, you've, just utterly sick and then just, like, all sweaty up on my temple. So I'm sitting on the edge of our bed. Marty's in my lap and I'm eagle-eye watching for, like, whatever's about to start happening to him. And I had always heard that, like, y- you have your mother's instinct or whatever that is and, like, moms know best and moms can tell when something's wrong with their kid and, like, sometimes maybe that's true, but for me-

 

Robert:

Brenna says she just froze.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... I was imagining, like, this huge, like, glop of ointment has worked it's way down your esophagus and now what is it doing to your stomach lining and what's gonna happen when it, like, I was just, like, and I can't take it back, like, what do I do? So, Nick has gone to the next room and I hear that he's on the phone with someone and then just moments later, he came back out and he said, "Well. That was the most pleasant phone call I've had in ages." There he was completely calm, kinda like smiling at me in the doorway and I'm just still hunched over the bed, like, hanging on to Marty thinking what is going on? So, Nick straightened up and then went into, like, "Oh, okay. Here's what happened. I called. They immediately picked up-

 

Jad:

Brenna says that Nick told her, uh, he talked to this man. The guy asked him super matter of fact how much Marty weighed. Nick told him 20 pounds or whatever. He asked then what brand of diaper ointment did Marty eat? And he told him the brand. And then the guy did a little mental math and said, "Your child's gonna be fine."

 

Brenna Farrell:

Totally fine. This was probably not a big deal at all. It was really common.

 

Robert:

No vomiting, no, no nothing?

 

Brenna Farrell:

Nope. He was like, just like a slippery little piglet at that point. So, cleaned him up and then, uh, you know, let him play. But for the rest of the day, I just kept thinking, "What the hell is Poison Control? I honestly didn't think we still lived in a world where you could just call a hotline, like, get on the telephone and talk to a live human who somehow knows everything about this one specific brand of diaper ointment and then bam, like, 45 seconds later this full blown crisis in my mind was just gone. And then I, you know, I, I just was having this weird moment of, like, there's this invisible network out there that was just, kind of, primed and waiting to help, um, who are these people?

 

Brenna Farrell:

So, a few months later, I'm totally obsessed with Poison Control-

 

Brenna Farrell:

Check, check, check.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... and I ended up in a sky scraper in downtown Chicago. Up 19 floors, down these four twisty turny corridors to the oldest Poison Control Center in America.

 

Brenna Farrell:

We're here. When I got there-

 

Carol:

You know, our staff wished there was some natural light-

 

Brenna Farrell:

... Carol, the senior director, took me on a tour. It's a lot smaller than I would've expected.

 

Carol:

You can say it's a dump.

 

Brenna Farrell:

No, it's not a dump. But it definitely is an office. (laughs)

 

Carol:

(laughs)

 

Brenna Farrell:

Was, uh, I, you know, I think I was expecting, like, just banks of, like, high tech, gleaming computers and instead-

 

Carol:

That phone hasn't worked in at least five years, but it's still there.

 

Brenna Farrell:

It was this narrow office with gray carpet.

 

Carol:

We have a crusty mushroom poster up there.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Gray cubicles.

 

Carol:

I don't know whose Cubs hat that is, but it's been here for a while.

 

Brenna Farrell:

The place kinda reminded me of, like, a basement college computer lab, you know, like, where all the machines are kinda still running Windows 95 or something like that. And sitting in front of those computers-

 

Erin:

Poison Center.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... were the poison specialists.

 

Erin:

Um, I'm, I'm the snakebite person. I love handling snakebite calls.

 

Brenna Farrell:

There's Erin, who's into snakes.

 

Erin:

Like the little old lady who's, like, working in her backyard and there was a snake and she chops off his head with a shovel and then she brings the snake head into the ER to show them what bit her.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And there's Connie.

 

Connie:

I'm sort of the go-to person for mushrooms. How I look at it-

 

Brenna Farrell:

She takes mushroom calls even when she's on vacation.

 

Carol:

Is that true?

 

Connie:

Yes. (laughs)

 

Carol:

And she gets excited about it.

 

Brenna Farrell:

There's Cindy, who used to work in the ER.

 

Cindy:

I'm a nurse by background.

 

Brenna Farrell:

There's Jessica.

 

Jessica:

Yeah, I take the home calls.

 

Brenna Farrell:

There's Art.

 

Art:

I, I'm interested in all of it. It's all fun.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And then-

 

Carol:

Tony, Brenna's here.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... there's Tony.

 

Tony Burda:

Hello.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Hi Tony. How's it going?

 

Tony Burda:

Hi.

 

Brenna Farrell:

So good to meet you. He's the expert in everything.

 

Tony Burda:

Illinois Poison Center.

 

Art:

I'm ringing? Okay.

 

Jessica:

Illinois Poison Center.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And while I was there, the stream of calls, it was just non-stop.

 

Jessica:

All right. Bu-bye.

 

Brenna Farrell:

As soon as one of them would hang up the phone-

 

Erin:

Poison Center.

 

Jessica:

Illinois Poison Center.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... another call would come in.

 

Jessica:

He's five? Normally healthy? Okay, gently wipe off his lips with a little warm water on a wash cloth. Give him something to drink.

 

Brenna Farrell:

They all told me that in order to work here you need a background in medicine, special training in toxicology on top of that, it helps to have a good memory, good math skills, but, you know, more importantly, what you really need is to be able to stay-

 

Tony Burda:

Uh... calm (laughs) I guess.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... Calm.

 

Tony Burda:

I usually tell people they're gonna be overwhelmed by the first three months.

 

Connie:

Poison Center.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Because sometimes the calls, you know-

 

Jessica:

Oh, glow stick is not going to be a problem

 

Brenna Farrell:

... they're adorable.

 

Cindy:

Oh gosh.

 

Brenna Farrell:

But other times...

 

Cindy:

Oh boy.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... they're like this.

 

Cindy:

He has a temperature of 104.

 

Brenna Farrell:

This is an ER call.

 

Cindy:

And what was the sugar again?

 

Brenna Farrell:

A hospital was calling about a male patient who had been found unconscious.

 

Cindy:

Completely sweaty, diaphoretic at home. So the medics are assessing him. His blood sugar was 40. His Tylenol is 372. His pupils, she said, are bouncing all over the place. I don't know what that means.

 

Brenna Farrell:

After she hung up, I asked Cindy if this was a self-harm call.

 

Cindy:

The, it's believed to be yes. She was saying that his wife just died of cancer. Yeah.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Is that somewhat rare, to get one that serious?

 

Cindy:

No. Not at all. We get them all the time. At least, you know, mm...

 

Cindy:

Poison Center. Can you spell that? Can you spell the name of that drug? And how many milligrams did you say?

 

Brenna Farrell:

I ended up spending about 12 hours there that day and i- if you sit in a poison control center that long you just-

 

Art:

Poison Center.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... these calls are washing over. They're just coming, and coming, and coming.

 

Cindy:

Poison Center.

 

Brenna Farrell:

You start to feel just kind of-

 

Art:

How's your child doing?

 

Brenna Farrell:

... overwhelmed by the fact that every single time the phone rings-

 

Art:

How many times did she vomit?

 

Brenna Farrell:

... there's somebody on the other side of the line and they're in a moment of uncertainty-

 

Art:

Okay.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... or panic-

 

Cindy:

Now, when did she take the Tylenol overdose?

 

Brenna Farrell:

... or crisis.

 

Cindy:

This could be pretty serious.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And the scale of that is just kind of shocking.

 

Carol:

We manage 80,000 calls a year out of this room.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And that's just this one center. That's just Chicago. If you take the poison centers all across the country they handle almost 3 million cases a year. So, you get a call like mine, or much worse, about every 14 seconds or so.

 

Robert:

Phew. Whoa.

 

Carol:

You know, this is a very poisonous planet.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And thinking about just how many of us are bumping into these things that we think might be poisoning us-

 

Carol:

Arsenic, mercury...

 

Brenna Farrell:

... or that are poisoning us.

 

Carol:

Gold is poisonous to some extent, silver not so poisonous but it'll turn you blue.

 

Brenna Farrell:

I decided to call up Deborah Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and poison enthusiast.

 

Deborah Blum:

I love poison, it's true.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Even wrote a book called The Poisoner's Handbook.

 

Deborah Blum:

Yeah, my husband worries about that a lot.

 

Brenna Farrell:

(laughs)

 

Deborah Blum:

In fact, he has not let me pour him a cup of coffee for the last six years since my book came out.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Are you, are you serious? R-, he really would?

 

Deborah Blum:

(laughs) No, seriously, he's always like, "Oh, I'll get it."

 

Brenna Farrell:

So, Deborah says it kind of helps to think of Poison Control as part of this much larger back and forth. Kind of a dance, an evolving dance that we've been doing with our poisonous planet for thousands of years.

 

Deborah Blum:

We've been dancing with them in different ways for a very long time. If you go back and look at the hieroglyphics in Egypt there's actually references to death by peach.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Hmm.

 

Deborah Blum:

And that refers to cyanide poisoning because cyanides are the primary poison in the pits of peaches and plums.

 

Robert:

Death by peach is actually written in a wall of a temple somewhere, or a tomb?

 

Deborah Blum:

That's exactly right.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And Deborah says, if you go back to the beginning of that dance, you'll find that like so many things, it starts with murder, because we humans first got really interested in poisons when we realized we could use them to kill each other.

 

Deborah Blum:

And one of my favorite examples is actually arsenic.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Which, in early 19th century Europe was, by all accounts-

 

Deborah Blum:

The perfect homicide poison.

 

Brenna Farrell:

It was tasteless, it was odorless.

 

Deborah Blum:

You could put it into vanilla pudding or oatmeal.

 

Brenna Farrell:

It mimicked a natural illness.

 

Deborah Blum:

Gee, it kinda looked like they had a bad gastroenteritis.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And at the time we had no way of detecting it.

 

Deborah Blum:

Literally, when we come into the 19th century, science has not figured out a way to detect a single poison in a corpse.

 

Robert:

Well, so what ruined this perfect murder?

 

Deborah Blum:

Well, there was a chemist in Britain named James Marsh who worked out this incredibly, it's, I mean, by to standards today, primitive tests which involved mincing up the tissue from the dead person and adding some acid and heating it up and distilling it and then, as this vapor comes out, it cools onto lass. And if there was any arsenic in the original tissue, that arsenic forms tiny dark crystals, and you got a sort of blackish silver mirror forming over the glass.

 

Robert:

Oh...

 

Deborah Blum:

And that was actually the first great test in, uh, forensic toxicology. The Marsh test.

 

Robert:

This is sort of the moment, Deborah says, that modern science joins our dance with poison.

 

Deborah Blum:

Because j- as you see the rise of industrial chemistry and, and our ability to synthesize cyanide and strychnine and some of these amazingly toxic elements, you also see people's realization of how useful they are.

 

Matt Kielty:

Man, people are so cool around here. Are we in Soho?

 

Annie McEwen:

We're in West Soho.

 

Matt Kielty:

West Soho.

 

Brenna Farrell:

What started happening was, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were all these new cleaning products hitting the market designed to kill germs and pharmaceutical products designed to kill headaches, or whatever. And suddenly, all these poisons that used to just be out there in nature were in our homes.

 

Robert:

Or in the drugstore aisle. For example.

 

Matt Kielty:

Did you see these fun sunglasses?

 

Annie McEwen:

Sure.

 

Matt Kielty:

They're right over here.

 

Robert:

Here are our producers Annie McEwen and Matt Kielty taking a jaunt-

 

Annie McEwen:

Okay, here we are in Hudson Pharmacy.

 

Robert:

... on our time, on Tuesday afternoon, this is during working hours-

 

Matt Kielty:

Man, they only got the weird Dorito flavors.

 

Annie McEwen:

Come on.

 

Robert:

... to the local drugstore.

 

Annie McEwen:

Cleaning aisle, wow! So.

 

Matt Kielty:

Oh my.

 

Annie McEwen:

Drano. It's at the bottom of the shelf, easy for kids to reach. Now let's read the ingredients.

 

Matt Kielty:

Contains sodium hypochlorite, sodium hydroxide and sodium silicate.

 

Annie McEwen:

Okay. Let me see once second. Quick check online. Sodium hydroxide. According to Wikipedia, it's used to digest tissues. Say there's like roadkill in a landfill, they will put the roadkill in a sealed container with sodium hydroxide and water.

 

Matt Kielty:

Oh my, it's like Breaking Bad.

 

Annie McEwen:

Yeah, a- and the body turns into a liquid with coffee-like appearance, apparently.

 

Matt Kielty:

Turns people into coffee.

 

Annie McEwen:

It like makes people into coffee. Yeah.

 

Matt Kielty:

Okay.

 

Annie McEwen:

A little higher on the shelf.

 

Matt Kielty:

Ah, everybody's favorite childhood cartoon.

 

Annie McEwen:

Mr. Clean, meadows and rain scent.

 

Matt Kielty:

Oh, yeah.

 

Annie McEwen:

Same thing.

 

Matt Kielty:

Sodium hydroxide.

 

Annie McEwen:

Coffee people. Wait don't open it. Don't open it. It's not- it's, if you open it you have to buy it.

 

Matt Kielty:

No.

 

Annie McEwen:

(laughs)

 

Matt Kielty:

(laughs)

 

Annie McEwen:

Yes. Look. So.

 

Matt Kielty:

What's this thing? This opens.

 

Annie McEwen:

Nope. There's Windex. I see Windex. Oh, this one is just called ammonia.

 

Matt Kielty:

(laughs)

 

Annie McEwen:

If you mix ammonia and bleach, what happens? A poisonous gas results.

 

Matt Kielty:

(laughs) Whoa.

 

Annie McEwen:

It also occurs naturally in the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn.

 

Matt Kielty:

That's impressive.

 

Annie McEwen:

Next one. This little gray bottle up on the highest shelf.

 

Matt Kielty:

Goddard's Brass and Copper Polish.

 

Annie McEwen:

A brass and copper polish.

 

Matt Kielty:

Contains 2-butoxyethanol.

 

Annie McEwen:

It has a sweet, ether-like odor.

 

Matt Kielty:

Here, I'm gonna pop this... oh.

 

Annie McEwen:

Did you just open it and smell it?

 

Matt Kielty:

Oh it said harmful if inhaled.

 

Annie McEwen:

Oh, Matt. Okay, well it says it can cause adrenal tumors in animals. It's carcinogenic in rodents.

 

Matt Kielty:

Jesus Christ.

 

Annie McEwen:

Um...

 

Matt Kielty:

Well I hope I didn't smell too much of it.

 

Annie McEwen:

Matt!

 

Matt Kielty:

Let's just get out of here.

 

Annie McEwen:

You don't wanna get some chips?

 

Matt Kielty:

No.

 

Annie McEwen:

All right.

 

Deborah Blum:

We're very comfortable with the fact that we walk down the grocery store aisle or open up the medicine chest and we're surrounded by these different, you know, in pill form or liquid form or spray form or whatever, but these different compounds that actually are dangerous. We're used to that. We live with that, right?

 

Brenna Farrell:

Wow, snakes.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Which brings us to a guy.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Let's see. Oh, and there's a plaque for Louis Gdalman.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Actually I saw this plaque dedicated to him on the wall at the poison center in Chicago.

 

Brenna Farrell:

In appreciation of the initiative and devoted service of Louis Gdalman, RPH, founder of the Poison and Drug Information Center.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Anyway, a guy names Louis Gdalman.

 

Katherine:

Louis Gdalman, who was a brilliant scientist in the state of Illinois.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Louis passed away back in 1995, but his wife Katherine-

 

Katherine:

Yes.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... is still very much alive.

 

Katherine:

Absolutely.

 

Brenna Farrell:

She's 98 now, but she met Louis back when she was a 20 year old nurse working in St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago.

 

Katherine:

It was 1940 and he was a pharmacist in the hospital and everybody knew Lou and we all loved him and I was the lucky one. I caught him (laughs).

 

Brenna Farrell:

Louis was sort of a shorter man, dark hair, big dark eyebrows.

 

Katherine:

And he had a great personality and he would take care of everything that came along.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Friendly, but, when it came to his work, he took it very seriously.

 

Katherine:

The pharmacy was directly across the hall from the emergency room.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And so what started happening is Gdalman noticed this trend. Like, just to back up, this is the 1940s and doctors are totally winning against infectious diseases. And what that meant was that, as far as the public was concerned, keeping your family healthy and germ free is a big deal, and that meant keeping your home-

 

Advertisement 1:

So clean.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... super-

 

Advertisement 2:

Gleaming clean.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... duper-

 

Advertisement 1:

So white.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... clean.

 

Advertisement 2:

It really looks clean, doesn't it?

 

Brenna Farrell:

And at the same time-

 

Advertisement 2:

Use A Tack.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... there's just this explosion of new cleaning products coming into the market.

 

Advertisement 2:

Bavo leaves your sink brighter than any other cleanser in the world.

 

Advertisement 3:

Johnson's Jubilee.

 

Advertisement 1:

New, blue Cheer. Great for dishes as well as laundry.

 

Brenna Farrell:

So our kitchen cabinets and cupboards under the bathroom sink-

 

Advertisement 1:

Deep cleaning Oxidol.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... was getting, like, filled up with all of these things. Like strong smelling powders and liquids-

 

Advertisement 1:

Bavo.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... and brightly colored bottles and boxes.

 

Advertisement 3:

Of all leading cleaners, Mr. Clean is now the most powerful ever put into a pot.

 

Advertisement 1:

Ooh and it smells good too.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And getting back to Louis, what he began to notice was that more and more these doctors were coming across the hall to his pharmacy. Like first one, and more and more and, you know, they were saying like, "Hey, we've got this kid over in the ER. He just got into this new cleaning stuff and we have no idea what's in it. Can you help us?"

 

Katherine:

So, uh, the interns and residents in the emergency room would naturally come across the hall to see Lou. And Lou helped them find out what the child had taken.

 

Brenna Farrell:

For example, if the child had swallowed Ajax.

 

Advertisement 2:

Use Ajax! Boom boom.

 

Brenna Farrell:

That meant he had actually eaten-

 

Advertisement 2:

Boom boom.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... sodium carbonate and sodium dodecylbenzene sulfinate, which could mean nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting.

 

Katherine:

And Lou used to keep cards on every patient that he saw.

 

Brenna Farrell:

So with each new product that was brought into the emergency room, Lou would write up a new card. White Sail Bleach, sodium hypocholoride, chest pain, vomiting. Safety clean...

 

Katherine:

Lou decided this was a thing that was very needed.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Because by the 1950s there were over 250,000 different trade name substances on the market. And so doctors, they just couldn't keep up. And so Lou's stack of cards, it grew taller and taller and taller and pretty soon word got out. Docs across the country would hear that there's this guy in Chicago who gives out help on poisoning cases. And so many calls were coming in at all hours of the day and night, eventually Gdmalman just started telling the switchboard operators they could go ahead and transfer the call to his home.

 

Katherine:

We would get calls from all the different little, uh, emergency room in the hospitals in the state.

 

Robert:

And what was, uh, w- what's it like, um, i-, once you're doing this then it seems to me that you don't really have normal hours because emergencies will take place whenever they take place. So, w-

 

Katherine:

Yes.

 

Robert:

How did, w- what was he gonna be on call 24 ours a day, or-

 

Katherine:

They-

 

Robert:

Or-

 

Katherine:

Yes.

 

Robert:

Really?

 

Katherine:

Yes. Yes, he was. We would get calls in the middle of the night. Yeah, or even during dinner time.

 

Robert:

So what happens if, you know, he's in the tub and you're cooking dinner and the phone rings?

 

Katherine:

I would, uh, take the phone to him in the tub.

 

Robert:

(laughs)

 

Katherine:

(laughs) Er, a- and, uh, that's the way it started.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And eventually, Lou's little operation became the first poison control center in the United States in 1953 in Chicago.

 

Jingle:

1-800-222-1222, 1-800-222-1222. If you think it might be poison then the first thing you should do is call 1-800-222-1222. Poison is the kind of thing you're not supposed to touch. Old prescriptions, cleaning stuff, or spider bites and such. If you swallowed somethin' bad or think you took too much, call the poison control center hotline, we're the people you can trust. For poison-

 

Kirsten:

Hi there, this is Kirsten recording from Orlando, Florida. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

 

Pocket Casts:

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Jad:

Two, one, Jad.

 

Robert:

Robert.

 

Jad:

Radiolab.

 

Robert:

So we are back with reporter Brenna Farrell who is continuing to, um, to inquire into things poisonous.

 

Jad:

And, uh, before the break we just, uh, learned about Louis Gdalman who started the oldest poison control center in the country back in 1953 in Chicago.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Yeah, and so today, now, we have 55 poison control centers all across the country, and it's one phone number that anyone, anywhere in the U.S. can call whenever they need help.

 

Art:

Poison Center.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Are there, uh, certain times of day, like is there a rhythm to the day, generally?

 

Tony Burda:

The usual pattern is busy in the morning, you know kids are getting ready for school and the parents are getting ready for work.

 

Jessica:

People brushing your teeth with muscle rub cream, kids drinking a little mouthwash, you eat some sunscreen, eating some old mayonnaise.

 

Tony Burda:

Double doses, uh, in the morning, you know. Each parent will give the kid, uh, ADHD, uh, medication, or, and then, then the mid-afternoon kind of tapers down a little bit.

 

Cindy:

'Til like four, five is the slowest.

 

Jessica:

And then...

 

Cindy:

The evenings.

 

Tony Burda:

The busiest time of the day overall. And it's like between 6:00 pm and 10:00 pm.

 

Jessica:

And it's people coming home from work, trying to get dinner.

 

Cindy:

Super glue instead of eye drops. Super glue instead of lip gloss.

 

Tony Burda:

People take the dogs or cats medicine by mistake instead of their normal medication.

 

Brenna Farrell:

(laughs) Oh no, really?

 

Tony Burda:

Uh, yeah, th- that's a frequent scenario.

 

Jessica:

At night, it gets to be with adults.

 

Erin:

I ha-, literally, I have a list here of all the things that have been used instead of lube.

 

Connie:

It's just busy, it's, you know, just the hectic schedule that we're living in right now.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And Gdalman's old stack of cards, that's become this huge database that's tracking, like, in real time these things that are cropping up.

 

News 1:

... over an outbreak of Salmonella that may have made 22 people sick already.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Whether it's a Salmonella outbreak, or like-

 

News 2:

The last 11 deaths appear to be connected to heroin being sold in western New York that's laced with fentanyl.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... a weird drug reaction that people are having, or maybe it's a new product that's unexpectedly dangerous.

 

News 3:

... popular laundry detergent pods that look like candy, now they are being linked to a tragic death of a child.

 

Brenna Farrell:

They can see that in real time, and the health officials or whoever else know about it.

 

Jad:

Wow.

 

Brenna Farrell:

W- which is pretty cool, but, I mean, honestly just selfishly, thinking about myself as, as a mom, um, coming out of the trip to poison control I remember writing down this feeling of, like, y- you know, what if I just approached all the scary decision in my life the way that poison control did? You like, what, w- like, kind of thinking, what would poison control do? Like, it just, it felt like such a relief to be experiencing-

 

Cindy:

It was phenobarbitol 64.8 milligram tablet. And how much does she weigh?

 

Brenna Farrell:

... like this super rational place, like it was just completely rational.

 

Cindy:

And when did it happen? How long ago?

 

Brenna Farrell:

We have this data, we're gonna-

 

Art:

What's the name of the product?

 

Brenna Farrell:

... take these questions from you-

 

Cindy:

  1. Let me see if this is even gonna be a problem.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... and then we're gonna tell you this is what we think is gonna happen-

 

Tony Burda:

She doesn't have any stomach pain now, she's a- awake...

 

Brenna Farrell:

... and they'll let you make a decision or they'll tell you, like straight up, don't worry about it.

 

Tony Burda:

Yeah I think she's gonna be A okay for, um, from here on out.

 

Cindy:

And then take it again but you will be okay. Okay?

 

Brenna Farrell:

It just felt like it, it stripped away a lot of the, um, like the guilt and the anxiety and the, like, should I do this-

 

Jad:

Yeah.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... and politics-

 

Jad:

Yeah.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... and all those other things that h- often swirl around even seemingly, to me, innocuous questions about how do I keep this person, this little person safe and healthy, there's all this stuff swirling around it, and they just, l- we didn't have to get into any of that.

 

Jad:

Th- it still remains for me the most interesting part of this, is the, the idea that we're just supposed to know things. Like, you know, I talk about this with my dad, I mean, there was this time in medicine when, um, it was all about the doctor in the white coat. It was this paternalistic thing, doctor knows best. And no one wants to go back there, but like, tha-, the- there was something emotionally clean about that, where as now, we, we have all the information. It's right there. This is hand in hand with the rise of the internet. And so increasingly we're expected to be our own experts and it's usually presented as this sort of simple idea that information is power, and uh, it isn't power. I mean it is, but it's also paralysis.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Yeah. I actually had ar rule where I wouldn't, I would only let Nick look things up. 'Cause I couldn't, like I was not, it started when I was pregnant, I, like, would have a panic attack. 'Cause there was so many different things. And like always the top searches are the ones that, like, you're gonna die, um.

 

Jad:

Oh yeah. And you re- you, like, you get into the comments field, oh forget it.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Oh, god, right?

 

Jad:

I mean there's something about when you look at an answer on a screen and you're just one click away from an, and the exact opposite answer. (laughs)

 

Brenna Farrell:

Yeah.

 

Jad:

And then when you're on the phone with someone, it's just you and that person. Like there is no other distraction.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Yeah.

 

Jad:

Like there's something built into the technology that creates exactly the kind of connect you need at that moment.

 

Tony Burda:

You know, people, when they call you, it's an emergency, they're, they're panicking and I think half the battle is getting them to settle down and...

 

Brenna Farrell:

So this is Tony Burda, the know-everything guy we mentioned earlier.

 

Tony Burda:

Well I started in February, uh, of '81.

 

Brenna Farrell:

He's been that calm voice for 30 years. And while he was in pharmacy school he had an accident.

 

Tony Burda:

Well I actually started pharmacy school as a sighted person but I finished as a blind individual.

 

Jad:

What, what happened?

 

Brenna Farrell:

Uh, he, he didn't want to say.

 

Tony Burda:

Oh, I don't want to dwell on, on it, but, um, you know...

 

Brenna Farrell:

But, like, I was sitting there seeing him doing all of this math and spitting out these numbers-

 

Tony Burda:

Receptor sites, and half lives, and [inaudible 00:26:23] distribution, and...

 

Brenna Farrell:

... which is totally incomprehensible to me. But he told me that he also, like, pretty quickly had discovered early on that there was this whole other part of doing this job.

 

Tony Burda:

That was in September of '82, let's see, I would have probably had, like, a year and half of experience at that time. I remember I was sitting in the Poison Center with another pharmacist and we had the news radio AM station on. It was about 10:30 in the morning, it was news, news flash.

 

News 4:

A bizarre and terrifying story today in the Chicago suburbs of Arlington Heights and Elk Grove Village. A 12 year old girl and two men who were brothers are dead after taking poisoned capsules of extra-strength Tylenol.

 

Tony Burda:

Several people died from cyanide that they believe was from Tylenol.

 

News 5:

... but five deaths in Chicago and that number might be changed to six.

 

News 4:

Six deaths have now been linked to the capsules which were laced with cyanide and late today...

 

Brenna Farrell:

It was this terrifying moment were thousands of people just simultaneously were all thinking, "Oh my god, this thing I brought into my home to make me feel better, it could kill me."

 

News 4:

Today across the country, Tylonal products were being pulled from the shelves.

 

Brenna Farrell:

The police are like driving their cars slowly down the street with loud speakers being like-

 

Speaker 26:

Do not take any Tylenol until further notice.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... "Take back your Tylenol."

 

News 4:

Don't take any Tylenol Extra Strength for the time being until you hear otherwise.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And so, you know, Tony told me he's sitting there hearing these news broadcasts going across the radio and he just turned to the guy sitting next to him in the poison control center and said...

 

Tony Burda:

Holy S. We're gonna, we're gonna get killed.

 

News 5:

Poison control.

 

News 4:

The phone has been ringing off the hook at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago.

 

Tony Burda:

You know, it was just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Soon as you hung up the phone, you know the phone ring again.

 

Speaker 27:

Uh, we've been receiving calls about once every 15 seconds.

 

Tony Burda:

This other pharmacist and I just grabbed the references and try to make ourselves cyanide experts, you know, real fast.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And the interesting thing about this case is that in every single one of these calls that was coming in, you know, someone was terrified, someone was panicked, but they weren't actually in any danger.

 

News 4:

Officials here say if anyone has take a cyanide laced Tylenol capsule, they probably wouldn't be able to make it to the phone to call.

 

Brenna Farrell:

So in some way, this moment, if you think about it, it, it really kind of highlights this thing that is really at the heart of poison control. The specialists not only were calm but they, w- they, they're job was to just reassure. Like, they were letting people know it was gonna be okay. But if you flash forward to now, that's changing. It's, they're getting more calls that are more serious. They're getting calls from hospitals, they're getting calls from people who have taken multiple drugs, and so, they're like-

 

Jad:

And that, does that mean that they're getting less calls from, like, normal people, parents, and that kind of thing?

 

Brenna Farrell:

Yeah, those calls are going down.

 

Jad:

Huh.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And that, and like calls overall since like, the, in the past decade there have been fewer calls to poison control.

 

Jad:

Do you know why?

 

Brenna Farrell:

My sense is we don't like to make phone calls anymore. Like, people don't-

 

Jad:

Hmm.

 

Brenna Farrell:

... they're, like, you know, like the internet is there and that's what we're used to and that's easy. And so they are, they just launched this new, like instead of calling, you can go to the website and plug in answers to the questions that they roll through, and it will give you the same answer based on hopefully the same knowledge. But then as a person who's lived through it, I'm like, oh my God, please don't take away that phone call. 'Cause it, when you're in that panic, the though of having to sit and type an answer out while you're holding your kid and like wondering if you've really screwed up, i- it's like you're taking away something really valuable that maybe we're not valuing here.

 

Deborah Blum:

I did have this one event when my older son, I've got two sons, was very little. We were living in Sacramento.

 

Jad:

That, by the way, is author Deborah Blum again.

 

Deborah Blum:

And, uh, they didn't have fluoridated water, so our, uh, doc gave them these tiny, cute, they were really cute, fruit flavored fluoride pills, the kinda thing you could get a toddler to take. I don't know what we were doing, but somehow we had given him his daily fluoride pill and then like idiots left it on the kitchen counter. And he grabbed it and pretty much inhaled the whole bottle. And I was a- really freaked. I just didn't know how poisonous that was gonna be and I called poison control.

 

Robert:

You did?

 

Deborah Blum:

And... I did. I, I was like, am I supposed t-, what I wanted to know was whether I should panic, right?

 

Robert:

Yeah.

 

Deborah Blum:

I mean, he seemed fined, he, it wasn't like he was getting sick in any way, and, uh, they were completely non-freaked out about it. (laughs) I was like-

 

Brenna Farrell:

(laughs) That's their specialty.

 

Deborah Blum:

Y- Yeah. It was-

 

Robert:

(laughs) Do you remember that experience? Do you remember hear-, did you hear their words or did you hear their tone?

 

Deborah Blum:

It was the tone. They were so calm, and they could tell I was freaked. And, and I can just tell you, I'm standing in the kitchen, we had this phone, my son's by me, I, you know, he can tell I'm freaked but he doesn't really know I'm freaked and I sat on the floor. After I talked to them, I just sat down on the floor with him, because I was just so grateful, right?

 

Robert:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Deborah Blum:

And I was. And that's what I remember, is how grateful I felt.

 

Speaker 28:

You can't deal with poison. Hello? Um, my, my two and a half year old daughter just ate most of the tube of a .85 ounce thing of crest.

 

Speaker 29:

Good afternoon, poison control, how may I help you.

 

Speaker 30:

Oh yes, hi there, I gave my son 12.5 ml of children's Motrin.

 

Speaker 29:

I understand. And what is his weight.

 

Speaker 30:

Uh, he is about 25 to 30 pounds, so.

 

Speaker 29:

So question um...

 

Speaker 28:

Um, 0.243%.

 

Speaker 29:

0.243?

 

Speaker 28:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Speaker 29:

How much does the child weigh?

 

Speaker 28:

Um, she weighs... darn it, I think 24 pounds.

 

Speaker 29:

This is a brand new tube that she ate it?

 

Speaker 28:

Um, just a tiny bit used, maybe a pea sized amount used.

 

Speaker 31:

... aid station.

 

Speaker 32:

Um, that shouldn't be a problem.

 

Speaker 31:

Tarro...

 

Speaker 32:

Tarro and?

 

Speaker 31:

Tarro. T-A-R-R-O.

 

Speaker 32:

Yeah?

 

Speaker 31:

Uh, that's what it says, that's all I can see. It says others tarro.

 

Speaker 32:

Does it say anything [inaudible 00:32:30] tool, or...

 

Speaker 31:

No.

 

Speaker 32:

Anything else-

 

Speaker 31:

It just says tarro.

 

Speaker 32:

... that you can read?

 

Speaker 31:

Uh, yeah, four take tubes, five dot Y, or five percentage, it might be percent, I'm not sure.

 

Speaker 32:

Five what?

 

Speaker 31:

Five dot Y?

 

Speaker 32:

5.4, maybe.

 

Speaker 31:

Maybe. Yes. 5.4.

 

Speaker 32:

Yeah, [inaudible 00:32:49] four eight 5.4 that's not a problem.

 

Speaker 31:

No?

 

Speaker 32:

No.

 

Speaker 31:

Ah, thank heaven.

 

Speaker 32:

Yeah, so give her something to drink and she'll be fine.

 

Speaker 31:

Okay.

 

Speaker 29:

Definitely not, uh, even close to the possible toxic dose.

 

Speaker 33:

No, this happens all the time. She should be fine.

 

Speaker 31:

All right, well thank you so much for your help, I appreciate it.

 

Speaker 33:

You're welcome. You know, he'll be fine.

 

Speaker 34:

Wow, um, l-, uh, Leti-

 

Speaker 33:

Letitia.

 

Speaker 34:

Was it Letit-, Letitia? You just put us at ease and I appreciate you very much.

 

Speaker 29:

Oh we appreciate that too.

 

Jingle:

1-800-222-1222, 1-800-222-1222. If you think you might be poisoned. Poison is the kind of thing you're not supposed to touch. Spider bites and poison, if you swallowed something bad or think you took too much, 1-800-222-1222.

 

Jad:

Calls to poison control are confidential, by the way, uh, we got permission from the callers you heard to use the audio. If you should ever need to call poison control, the number is 1-800-222-1222. And if you text the word Poison to 797979 it will save the number in your phone.

 

Robert:

Deborah Blum's latest book, The Poison Squad, is gonna come out this fall and you can find out more on our website.

 

Jad:

Thank you also to Nick Capodice, Wendy Blair-Stefan, Mariana Moser-Jones, Andrew Perella, Whitney Pennington, Richard Dart, and Natalie Wheton. This episode was reported by Brenn Farrell and produced by Annie McEwen with help from Jake Arlow. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad:

Thanks for listening.

 

Jingle:

If you think it might be poison and you don't know what to do, call 1-800-222-1222.

 

Speaker 35:

To play the message, press two. Start of message.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Hey everybody, it's Brenna. I'm calling in the staff credits with Marty. We'll see how far we get. Hey Marty, you ready? Radiolab...

 

Marty:

Radiolab by Jad Abumrad.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And is produced by...

 

Marty:

And produced by Sauron Wheeler. Dylan Keefe-

 

Brenna Farrell:

Is our director.

 

Marty:

He is Marty, Marty.

 

Brenna Farrell:

No, director of sound design. Can you say that?

 

Marty:

Director of sound design.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Maria Matasar-Padilla...

 

Marty:

Maria Matasar-Padilla and then the rest includes [inaudible 00:35:23].

 

Brenna Farrell:

Maggie Bartelamayo.

 

Marty:

Oh Maggie at my school.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Okay.

 

Marty:

[inaudible 00:35:25]

 

Brenna Farrell:

Rachel Cusick.

 

Marty:

Rachel Cusick, David Davoo...

 

Brenna Farrell:

Gracie Hunt.

 

Marty:

Gracie Hunt. Matt Kielty. Rob Krulwich. Annie McEwen. Latif Nasser.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Melissa O'Donnell.

 

Marty:

Melissa O'Donald.

 

Brenna Farrell:

Marianne Mac.

 

Marty:

Marianne Mac. Pat Walters.

 

Brenna Farrell:

And Molly Webster.

 

Marty:

And Molly Webster. With help from Marty!

 

Brenna Farrell:

(laughs) Yeah. Amanda Arohin.

 

Marty:

Yep, it rob, rob, I already did that. Hmm, um, oh, I wri, I lee [inaudible 00:36:02]

 

Brenna Farrell:

Bye.

 

Marty:

Bye. Now can you tell the puppy to bark?

 

Brenna Farrell:

Yes/

 

Speaker 35:

End of message. 

 

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