January 22, 2018

Poison Control Centers Face Cuts

An alert about toxins in fish led Food Poisoning Bulletin to an agency that helps protect consumers against food poisoning as well as identify emerging public health threats. If you’ve ever dialed 1-800-222-1222, the Poison Help Hotline, you’ve used the services of the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC).

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) along with the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) alert citizens to food recalls, outbreaks of foodborne illness, and investigate food poisoning events. But poison control centers have one big advantage over these government agencies: their regionally-based centers are staffed 24/7 to answer questions about poisoning issues.

There are 57 poison control centers in the United States. While they are most often involved with chemical poisoning or bioterrorism incidents, they also track food poisoning outbreaks and can be the first to alert about an outbreak cluster. Hospitals use these centers to get information about emergency room poisoning cases. They also check with the poison control centers to verify that the treatments used were correct.

Outbreaks tracked by the Poison Control Center included a 2007 outbreak of Salmonella in peanut butter that sickened 628 people in 47 states and foodborne illness cases after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They also helped evaluate and track seafood safety after the Gulf oil spill in 2009.

911 operators rely on the poison control centers too; they often conference in a staffer when talking to consumers because there is always a toxicologist on call. In fact, a call to a poison control center can elicit treatment advice so you don’t need to go to the emergency room. Studies estimate that for every dollar spent on a poison control center, at least ten dollars is saved in health care costs.

But these centers have had their funding cut by 25% in the current Congress in Measure H.R. 1. The original proposal would have cut funding by 93%, but that was rejected by the Senate. A second cut of 14% in December 2011 is making it difficult for the centers to continue. The federal government funds 15% of the poison control center’s total costs; the remainder comes from hospitals and state governments.

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