It’s 2018. As a species, we are more advanced than ever before. We can excavate the remains of colossal volcanoes using robotic submarines. We can walk on the surface of other worlds, and push rare diseases into extinction – and yet, certain people still believe the Earth is flat or that eating laundry detergent tablets is a good idea.
The latter, admittedly, is a recent development.
The Onion, a satirical news site, posted an op-ed back in 2015 by a “toddler” wherein he explained his single-minded determination to ingest a multicolored detergent pod. This piece likely didn’t start the latest trend, but it’s worrying to think that 2018 is the year where the line between surreal parodies and satire can’t be distinguished from reality.
A typical video shows a person with not enough sense and too much bravado placing a Tide Pod, or a similar brand laundry detergent pod, on their tongue or in their mouths. Within moments, it begins to dissolve in their mouths, and they are seen choking, coughing, or vomiting. Naturally, this “challenge” even has a hashtag.
This is both stupid and dangerous. Although no-one has yet died from the challenge in recent months, it’s absolutely possible. Those with dementia, and several toddlers, have eaten these pods in recent times and have subsequently perished; tens of thousands more have been made incredibly sick.
If you still think this is just a bit of fun and you’re about to do the challenge yourself, then don’t. This is what could happen to you if you put one of those technicolor tabs in your mouth – and what happens if you ingest any of it.
Foaming Bellies, Aching Bowels
The purpose of detergent – in case you were oddly unaware of this – is to break up components of the waste that’s clinging so frustratingly to your crockery or, as it so happens, your hair. Composed of a mixture of synthetic chemicals, their most important ingredients are surfactants.
Surfactants are long chain molecules, with a hydrophilic (water-loving) head and a hydrophobic (water-hating) tail, the latter of which goes for grease instead. When you dissolve these surfactants into water they form “supermolecules.”
Grease gets trapped inside the grease-loving center of these supermolecules, and – thanks to the sheer attractive molecular force keeping the hydrophilic head in the water, grease is lifted right off the surface.
Your mouth and digestive system are full of water, but they are also full of fats. Having these aggressively stripped away from your digestive system is, as you may suspect, not ideal.
A 2012 report by a scientific body of the European Commission notes that, in small quantities, “surfactants have low oral acute toxicity,” adding that “in general, surfactants have an irritating effect on mucous membranes,” which are tissues that line the gut and the surfaces of plenty of tube-shaped organs.
It can be worse than just having an itchy, aching digestive tract though. Take a higher dose, and the severity of the effects can step up a gear.
“Manifestations may also include vomiting, abdominal pain, flatulence and diarrhea,” the report notes. “In rare cases, vomiting or formation of considerable amounts of foam in the mouth involve an aspiration risk.”
No, not in the sense of your personal aspirations – the sense of accidentally inhaling toxic materials, either new or freshly regurgitated. Both this and the foam, created as air gets mixed into the alchemical mixture, can leap into your lungs and stop you being able to breathe properly.
Healthy people might get away without any serious harm, but for extremely young children, the elderly, and anyone with a pre-existing medical condition, these surfactants can cause serious health problems. That’s not all that’s in these tablets, though.
Don't Eat Bleach, People
Take sodium percarbonate, a bleaching agent. It’s a dry, granulated form of hydrogen peroxide, and like all bleaches, it is responsible for removing stains from things by introducing a whitening effect.
Bleaches are oxidizing agents, which means that electrons are removed from these stain molecules, altering its overall structure. This can either destroy them completely, or take away their ability to absorb light and thereby give off its color.
Again, there is no reason why you should be eating bleaching molecules. Sometimes bleach can be an irritant, but concentrated bleach can be corrosive.
The bleach in a laundry detergent tablet would probably cause burns to your digestive tract, which can induce painful vomiting. If the bleach is concentrated, the damage will be worse. If the inflammation of the esophagus is bad enough, it will narrow the opening, and digestion will be restricted. One study suggests that the ingestion of bleach, or other caustic materials, could cause "esophageal perforation" in the long-term.
Ingesting isn’t the only option here, by the way. You can breathe these substances into your lungs too, wherein similar irritant/corrosive effects will manifest themselves – something that can cause varying degrees of respiratory distress and damage.
One study even notes that the various other chemicals, including some detergents (like ethoxylated alcohol) and other compounds, like propylene glycol, can lead to the depression of the central nervous system. This means that you can become drowsy or, in a serious case, you can fall into a coma.
The full range of effects, and what chemicals specifically cause them, is unknown at this time – and we’ve reached out to medical professionals for comment. Nevertheless, reports on individual cases, like this one, generally come to the same conclusion: namely, there is a “potential for significant toxicity” from ingesting these tablets.
Oh, The Humanity!
As noted in a recent report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the median age for tablet/pod-based exposure to laundry detergents was 3 years of age. The reason for this is that the pods are extremely vibrant and colorful, and toddlers wonder what would happen if such an aesthetically garish product was placed in their mouths.
As a teenager or an adult, you don’t have that excuse. Don’t do it – you’re engaging in an activity whose click-based rewards simply don’t outweigh the risks.