Poison Centre dispenses know-how 'round-the-clock

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

What do buttercups, vitamins and oven cleaners have in common?

They're among the everyday items that account for almost 44,000 poisoning inquiries per year to the B.C. Drug and Poison Information Centre (DPIC) housed in St. Paul's Hospital.

"A lot of people think they only have seconds to act," says Debra Kent, education program supervisor at DPIC. "But it takes a certain amount of time for the drug to dissolve and most poisonings can be managed at home."

Staffed by UBC pharmacists, nurses and medical toxicologists 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the centre responds to incidents of poisoning called in by members of the public and health professionals province-wide.

The staff of poison specialists also includes many UBC graduates who first worked at the centre as pharmacy or emergency medicine residents or doctoral candidates.

Most calls are received within 30 minutes of the poisoning while the situation can still be controlled.

Health professionals make about 4,000 calls per year to the centre looking for consultation on concerns ranging from patient management to new information on workplace toxins. Staff provide information on such topics as drug use in pregnancy, adverse drug reactions and foreign drug identification.

The centre's staff also educate Pharmaceutical Sciences and emergency medicine students in poison management.

"The opportunities for learning are never-ending," says Derek Daws, managing director of the centre. "There are always new products to be aware of, as well as new medications including herbal medicines."

The centre also produces and maintains a guide to frequently used drugs called the Drug Information Reference. Electronic versions are installed in hospital pharmacy departments in over 35 hospitals in Canada.

Most poisoning inquiries received by the centre concern children aged 10 years or younger whose parents need both first aid advice and reassurance.

With at least one child poisoned every hour in B.C., poison risks for children are the focus of Poison Prevention Week, an awareness campaign taking place March 15-21.

Kent and other DPIC staff will teach health professionals, parents, child-care supervisors and teachers around B.C. how to poison-proof a child's environment.

Kent says most poisonings result from a combination of factors. Visitors to the home may leave medicines within reach, parents may be ill or tired and unable to supervise their children well, or the child may be staying at a relative's home where toxic materials are not safely stored.

Despite the high incidence of poisonings, fewer than three children die from poisoning per year.

Individuals wishing more information on poison prevention can call DPIC at 682-5050 or toll-free at 1-800-567-8911.