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13-year-olds could be at greater risk of poisoning while at school

Students walking through the Quadrangle

Wednesday 31 March 2010 8:00am

A preliminary study conducted by a University of Otago student shows that 13-year-olds in New Zealand – boys in particular - appear to be most at risk of poisoning while at school. However, significant further study is required to determine why the risk at school is so high.

In a national first, the study probes the available statistics from the New Zealand National Poisons Centre based at the University on school and pre-school poisonings over a 20-year period. The study is the work of undergraduate School of Pharmacy student Benny Pan.

Mr Pan was awarded a New Zealand Child Injury Prevention Foundation scholarship to investigate the exposure profile of reported ingestions to the National Poison Centre between 1989 and 2009.

He chose to study cases of poisoning at school because children spend a substantial amount of time there before the age of 18.

“The epidemiological aspects of poisoning at school might therefore be very different from home poisoning, and it is important to obtain information about school poisoning to implement future prevention strategies,” he says.

The purpose of the study was to identify areas requiring further investigation by extracting the data on national calls to the Centre related to reported poisonings while at school and pre-school over this 20-year period. A total of 3632 calls to the Centre during this timeframe were analysed by year of exposure, age (from 0 to 18 years), their gender and the poisoning agent involved.

Mr Pan found that at 24 per cent of all exposures to poisons while at school or pre-school, 13-year-olds in particular were markedly over represented in the statistics. When broken down by gender, 13-year-old boys were more at risk, comprising about 60 per cent of the total of 13-year-olds, compared to 40 per cent of the total for 13-year-old for girls.

The poisoning agents for this 13-year-old group were mostly industrial agents (including chemicals), followed by therapeutics (including medications) then household agents (such as cleaning products).

Mr Pan says this preliminary study points to a need for further research to identify the circumstances leading to this age group being more at risk of poisoning while at school.

Time constraints on the study mean questions such as the source of the poison agent (for example, whether it was brought to school), where in New Zealand most poisonings occurred, the method of exposure and the final health outcome for the individuals were not investigated. Association between social status and poisoning using the NPC database was also an area not covered in this study.

“These are all areas where further research which could lead to the development of new prevention strategies is required,” he says.

Senior Lecturer at the School of Pharmacy, Dr Rhiannon Braund, says caution is needed when interpreting these statistics.

“While in this study there appears to be a statistical bubble at age 13, and some cause for concern, there is a lot more work still needed to further validate this work, and to find out why this may be the case.”

She stresses that children of a pre-school age are still the highest risk group for accidental poisonings, showing the largest numbers of hospitalisations and phone calls to the Poisons Centre when all figures for any setting, home or school, are combined.

NZHIS hospitalisation data collected between 2000 and 2004 showed that children aged zero to four are responsible for 80 per cent of hospitalisation due to accidental poisoning. While in 2007, 60 per cent to 65 per cent of telephone calls for children in the zero to15 age-group were related to poisoning in children under four in the National Poisons Centre database.
* (Safekids New Zealand Data; New Zealand National Poisons Centre data, 2007)

“Therefore, we would still advise that until further study is conducted, current measures to educate about the poisoning risk do not change. These measures apply to all child and youth age-groups both above and below the age of 13,” she says.

“It is vital that cleaning agents, medications and industrial agents be kept in a secure and child-proof place in all settings.”

For further information contact

Dr Rhiannon Braund,
Senior Lecturer,
School of Pharmacy,
University of Otago,
Tel 64 3 479 7240

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