Recently, videos have circulated on social media showing teens deliberately eating Tide Pods laundry detergent packs. All of this is part of what some call the “Tide Pod Challenge.”
These pods contain highly concentrated laundry detergent under pressure and explode when bitten into, releasing their toxic contents and causing rapid ingestion and inhalation of dangerous chemicals. In my capacity as a toxic chemical researcher and consultant, I have investigated and seen several instances of the horrendous consequences that result from laundry pack ingestion: permanent burning of the mouth, throat, digestive tract, and lung tissue, and in some cases even death.
Procter & Gamble (P&G), the manufacturer of Tide Pods, as well as other companies selling laundry detergent packs, have acted in the past to stem the misuse of their products. But these safety measures have failed.
It’s clear that laundry pods as they currently exist are too dangerous to be sold to the public. If P&G and other manufacturers can’t figure out a way to reduce the more than 10,000 injuries they cause each year, laundry packs need to be taken off the market.
Pod manufacturers have failed to protect consumers for years. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report outlining how they could pose a serious health hazard to children, especially those under five years old. In response, manufacturers improved the warning labels on packages and backed educational campaigns on the proper use of the packs. In 2015, manufacturers created new standards to address the safety complaints, changing the outer containers of the pods from clear to opaque, making the outer containers more difficult for children to open, coating the detergent pods with a bitter substance, and thickening the pods’ outer film to make them more difficult to puncture.
These steps don’t appear to have helped. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, 10,395 laundry pack injuries were reported in 2013; that number rose to a peak of 12,594 in 2015 before dropping to 10,570 in 2017—no progress in four years. They also continue to be especially dangerous to adults with dementia, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) states that consumer chemical products must contain warnings that alert the user to their toxic and physical dangers, take steps to package them so that they are safe to use as marketed, and protect children from ingesting or otherwise abusing them. The American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) Responsible Care Program instructs companies to address any significant hazards posed by their products and make changes in these products and their warnings as new information becomes available.
The problem is that manufacturers have not taken sufficient steps to make these packs unpalatable and less appealing to the people vulnerable to ingesting them. In failing to do so, they have failed to comply with FHSA regulations and ACC guidelines. P&G has faced several lawsuits over these poisonings; I offered expert testimony for one such case. As with most lawsuits of this sort, P&G quietly settled out of court and the terms were not disclosed.
Pod manufacturers claim they are doing everything they can to make their products safe. This simply isn’t true.
First, manufacturers can make a stronger effort to find a substance vile enough to prevent even teens hoping to impress friends from putting pods in their mouths. Even though they coat pods with a bitter-tasting substance, that obviously that hasn’t been sufficient. P&G and others need to do more research and testing to find an outer coating so disgusting that people immediately spit it out when it comes into contact with their mouths.
Manufacturers could also change the pods’ bright, candy-like colors to white, reduce their pleasant smell, and make them feel less squishy, changes that would make pods less attractive to children, teens, and adults with mental disabilities. These companies have resisted pressure to do so in the past; now that we are in a full-blown crisis, they must be open to any idea that could reduce injuries.
All hazardous chemical products introduced to the market are at some point misused or abused, no matter how well designed. But as they are currently produced and marketed, laundry pods are defective products that are inherently unsafe. If P&G and other manufacturers can’t make them safer, then they should no longer be allowed to sell them in stores.
Harold I. Zeliger is a principal at Zeliger Research and Consulting and a consultant with The Expert Institute.