Since a peak of 13,112 in 2015, calls to poison control centers about children's exposure to liquid laundry detergent packets have consistently declined. Laundry pod manufacturers, led by Procter & Gamble, have pointed to this data as proof that their six-year safety intervention for the products—which are small, brightly colored, and may be mistaken for candy—is working.
But new data show that the number of calls is rising again.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, in the first seven months of 2019, there were 5,768 calls linked to laundry pods. That's an increase of 347, or 6.4%, when compared to the same period in 2018—and marks the first time that the number of "exposures," as such calls are known, has risen year-over-year during that seven-month period since 2016.
Poison control calls for the year had dropped by 2,121, or 16.3%, between 2016 and 2017, and again by 1,438, or 13.2%, between 2017 and 2018.
The recent increase suggests that safety efforts may have reached their limit in further reducing exposures. The number of calls to poison control each month in 2019 has exceeded the number of calls from its corresponding month in 2018. If that trend continues through the end of this year, and exposures follow historical monthly trends, the total amount of exposures in 2019 is likely to exceed last year’s—which would be the first time the annual count has risen from the previous year since 2015.
Most people know about the dangers of laundry pods because of the Tide Pod Challenge, a viral phenomenon that emerged in late 2017 when teenagers started posting online videos of themselves eating laundry packets. But these incidents only made up a small amount of overall exposures.
The larger hazard began back in 2012, when Tide Pods launched in the U.S. Fortune reported earlier this year on how liquid laundry packets quickly caused a public health epidemic—with all laundry detergent-related annual emergency-room visits for young children tripling between 2011 and 2013 and remaining elevated since. The overwhelming majority of incidents involve children under age 6, and there have been isolated incidents of seniors with dementia dying from exposure.
Consumer advocates and child psychologists argue that the packets, most of which are colorful and squishy, are especially attractive to young children and cognitively impaired adults—and have called on the industry to change their design. P&G, whose Tide and Gain brands control 79% of the market, according to 2018 data from market research provider Euromonitor International, cites studies that it says show pods’ appearance does not play a role in exposures. Fortune’s investigation in February, however, found that these studies only looked at correlational data, rather than testing whether children were attracted to pods in real-world scenarios.
Brian Sansoni, senior vice president for communications at the American Cleaning Institute, which represents the cleaning industry, says it’s too early to evaluate the 2019 numbers mid-year.