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Toddlers, Not Adult Workers, Most Likely to Suffer Chemical Eye Burns

BALTIMORE – While even emergency clinicians might assume that most chemical eye burns usually occur in adults working in industry or other businesses where dangerous chemicals are in use, that actually isn’t the case.

At the highest risk of severe eye injury from chemicals are 1- and 2-year-old children, according to a report in JAMA Ophthalmology.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health-led research suggests more education is needed so that the avoidable but potentially permanent injuries occur less often. The study notes that factories and other businesses where dangerous chemicals are in use usually provide precautions such as safety goggles and treatments such as eye-wash stations.

"These are terrible injuries; they occur most frequently in the smallest of children and they are entirely preventable," explained study leader R. Sterling Haring, DO, MPH, a DrPH candidate in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "These children do not deal with chemicals on the job. They are injured largely because they get into chemicals such as household cleaners that are improperly stored."

Because chemicals continue to burn into the eye after contact, internal structures can be damaged irreparably, according to the study, touted as the first to use a national sample across all age groups. Researchers found that the most common type of injuries for young children came from alkaline agents — commonly found in cleansers — rather than from battery and sulfuric acids. Damage from alkaline agents continues unless the chemical is flushed out of the eye by running tap water over it for many minutes, Haring pointed out.

For the research, the study team analyzed four years of data from the Nationwide Emergency Department Sample, which includes information from roughly 30 million annual emergency department visits from more than 900 hospitals across the United States.

Results indicate that more than 144,000 emergency department visits related to chemical eye burns occurred nationwide between 2010 and 2013, most commonly occurring at home, in children in the bottom half of the income scale, and in the South.

With injuries most common among 1- and 2-year-olds, 1-year-olds were found to be twice as likely to suffer eye burns as 24-year-olds, who had the highest rate among adults. Injuries dropped off significantly once children were old enough to understand the dangers; 1-year-olds were 13 times more likely than 7-year-olds to burn their eyes.

Haring suggested that keeping household cleaners and other chemicals — most notably products in spray bottles — out of reach of young children could prevent the issue and called for a redesign so that the bottles were locked in place after each use.