Mom Gets Response On Child-Safety Idea

Lynn Tylczak thinks she has ``arrived.''

The Albany, Ore., parent and free-lance writer is the point person behind a grass-roots movement urging manufacturers to add bittering agents to toxic household, garden and automotive products in the interest of child safety.

Sometimes despite the best of supervision by parents and caregivers, and the use of child-resistant caps on products and drugs, youngsters manage to ingest toxic mixtures and are rushed to the hospital. Some don't survive.

In the 1 1/2 years since Tylczak began the Poison Proof Project she's appeared on national television talk shows, in hundreds of newspapers, the Congressional Record, the Saturday Evening Post and the Weekly Reader.

``Can you believe it?'' Tylczak asks. She remembers reading the Weekly Reader in school and thinking only really famous and important people made that publication.

So, in a way, her appearance for the Poison Proof Project in the Weekly Reader means the ``big time.''

However, it's all relative. Some Eastern media have called her rural Oregon home expecting her ``project'' to be on duty at all hours of the day. They don't realize the group has no paid staff or budget.

Some reporters are miffed to learn Tylczak doesn't have a fax machine to respond instantly to their questions, and they are outraged when she refuses to drive to town and pay $4 to fax them information.

In truth, the Oregon group now has what Tylczak describes as ``five housewives'' for its board of officers who often stalk area shopping malls seeking support for the group's mission.

But the really big news in this story is that Tylczak's idea has been catching fire.

California has passed a law requiring either the addition of a bittering agent to toxic household products or a child-resistant cap.

New York, Florida, Virginia and Massachusetts are considering legislation that would require the addition of a bittering agent to toxic products.

The Consumer Product Safety and Improvement Act of 1990, passed by both houses of Congress, includes a section that would require a two-year study by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission of the use of bittering agents to deter ingestion of household, garden and automotive chemicals.

The bill currently is in conference committees.

A scientist at CPSC is studying preliminary data but hasn't released any findings yet.

The good news is manufacturers, regulators and parents are focusing increased attention on accidental poisonings of children and are seeking new ways to prevent such tragedies.

But CPSC has questions about the possible adverse effect of adding denatonium benzoate, the most bitter-tasting substance known to man, to certain chemicals.

In some instances the addition of the bittering agent could stimulate a gag reflex, which in turn could cause the child to inhale the toxic product into the lungs in addition to the stomach, causing yet another complication, said Ken Giles a spokesman for CPSC.

Giles points to the success of child-resistant caps. There are 16 categories of products, including prescription drugs, for which the federal government requires child-resistant closures.

In 1972, 216 children under 5 years died of accidental household poisonings. By 1987 that number was down to 31, according to CPSC.

Giles believes the addition of a bittering agent may be useful in a slightly toxic product where the goal is to stop a child from ingesting more than a single swallow.

But if the product is highly toxic, a single swallow can do considerable harm.

He contends the addition of the bittering agent is not a substitute for a child-resistant container.

CPSC also says it has questions about the shelf-life of a bittering agent when it is part of another compound.

For example, a bittering agent is not effective in bleach because one chemical destroys the other.

While some household chemical products have child-resistant caps, not all do.

Alicia Knight, legislative assistant for Rep. Ron Wyden, Portland, Ore., Democrat, who also has worked on legislation, says there may be other answers.

Knight, who has a 6-month-old child, suggests that a change in the consistency of a product, a hot taste, or ``a bad smell like cow dung'' might be other options.

Knight says manufacturers have been extremely receptive to discussions about the use of bittering agents.

Beyond being good citizens there may be other reasons for manufacturers to look positively at the addition of bittering agents.

Mitch Tracy of Henley Chemicals, which markets Bitrex, a bittering agent, says several manufacturers have had their liability-insurance premiums reduced after adding Bitrex to their products.

That's what we call incentive and smart marketing.

Shelby Gilje's Troubleshooter column appears Sunday through Thursday in the Scene section of The Times. Do you have a problem? Write to Times Troubleshooter, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Include copies, not originals, of documents indicating payment, guarantees, contracts and other relevant materials.