I Drank Bleach | The Poison Boy Origin Story
Yes its true – when I was a kid I drank bleach. Just once. It was an accident. My mother, for some reason, had transferred the bleach from the container to a drinking cup and was cleaning our family bathtub with it. Her bathtub wiping was interrupted by a phone call and since this was 1968, she ran into the kitchen to answer the phone, which was hanging on a wall. While she was in the kitchen, six-year-old Poison Boy came in from playing outside, went into the bathroom, picked up the glass of bleach and drank about half of it in one gulp. I swallowed about 4 liquid ounces, then I realized something was wrong. My mouth and throat burned. I carried the glass into the kitchen, my mom dropped the phone and screamed. Then I screamed.
Just as we were both screaming my father came home. Intermittently sobbing and praying, my mom told him that I drank bleach and he did what the New York Police Department trained police officers to do in 1968 with a poisoned person – he had me lean over the kitchen sink and poured a half-gallon of milk down my throat. When most of the milk was inside me, he picked me up and carried me out to the car. I remember looking over his shoulder as we were exiting the house and seeing my mother, two sisters and my brother all sitting at the dinner table holding hands with their heads bowed, praying and I thought “Am I gonna die?”
We went to Franklin General Hospital and were taken right back to the ER. I distinctly remember sitting on the paper-covered exam table looking at my father, who was standing off to the side. My father made me tell the doctor “I drank bleach.” The doctor came at me with a tongue depressor and the nurse – in white shoes, stockings, dress and little hat(!) – held a metal bedpan under my chin. When the tongue depressor hit the back of my throat, I vomited all the milk into the bedpan.
And that was it. We went home and my mom made spaghetti and meatballs – my favorite – for dinner.
Luckily, household bleach is a pretty benign thing to drink and in researching this blog posts, the “drink bleach challenge” among emo millennials is a real thing. Household bleach typically about 3-5% sodium hypochlorite, which is fairly innocuous. It may cause some mucous membrane irritation, like it did to me when I drank bleach (although not enough to stop me from eating spaghetti and meatballs), but it shouldn’t cause blisters to form in the mouth or throat or tongue and it shouldn’t cause any issues with the stomach or any other organs. The only cases of really bad injury after bleach ingestion is if someone drinks a whole lot of bleach in an attempt to injure themselves (those people can cause hemorrhage or ulceration in the stomach and may actually perforate their gastrointestinal tract. Another possible bad effect is if someone drinks industrial strength bleach, which can range from 35-55% sodium hypochlorite. At this concentration, the bleach becomes a caustic and can severely damage the mouth, esophagus and the rest of the gastrointestinal system.
Believe it or not, I found webpages advising young people to pour bleach in their eyes to make their sclera appear whiter. Lots of before and after pictures of teens wearing eye patches.
I thought of this story when I read an article out of India about all the children that are poisoned by household products, including cleaning products.
Most of the phone calls to Poison Control Centers in the U.S. involve children under the age of 5, but the overwhelming majority of them are benign – just like my bleach ingestion. In India, however, it seems that children are getting into a lot of pesticides, which is something we don’t see much of in the U.S. Another thing that caught my eye was the huge number of naphthalene mothballs Indian kids are eating. In the U.S. its tough to find naphthalene mothballs – they are banned in California and the UK banned naphthalene mothballs in 2008.
There are essentially 3 different types of mothballs people use – the first is camphor, which is almost impossible to find in the U.S. anywhere except small bodegas and Indian/Asian groceries but is available from Amazon. Camphor causes terrible central nervous system toxicity if ingested with seizures and coma common. Naphthalene was thought to be a safer alternative to camphor and was pretty widely available for a long time – the Martha Stewart brand of mothballs used to be 99% naphthalene but I don’t think she puts out a mothball product anymore, at least I couldn’t find one online. Naphthalene toxicity is also a big problem – Naphthalene is a hydrocarbon molecule that is particularly toxic in a dose-dependent manner, to blood cells – they break open (lyse) and the patient becomes very anemic very quickly. In addition, whatever red blood cells that aren’t lysing become oxidized to a +3 valence state, becoming methemoglobin which has a chocolatey brown color and can’t carry oxygen so you die, unless you find a doctor that can A) figure out whats wrong and B) give you the antidote for methemoglobin (methylene blue). The 3rd type of mothball is paradichlorobenzene, which is toxic to the central nervous system, can cause demyelinization of neurons (the nerve cells are damaged and can’t carry the impulses from one place in your body to another) and leukoencephalopathy (brain damage), but you have to be exposed to a lot of the paradichlorobenzene for a long period of time (remember – toxicology is all about the dose. DOSE=CONCENTRATION/TIME).
All these look the same, don’t they? The middle picture is camphor mothballs and the far right is the paradichlorobenzene.
Since all these mothballs look the same and most people throw the mothballs in a drawer, then throw away the box, there are various ingenious ways to figure out how to identify what type of mothball you are dealing with. We will cover that in a future blogpost.
Want to crack up a toxicologist? Ask them – what is the hardest thing about identifying mothballs?
Answer: getting their little legs apart!