From Alexandria to Montgomery County, police departments in the Washington area warned residents Wednesday of three cases of possible spiked drinks, calling the situation a “close call.”
This type of incident is fairly common and not uncommon, according to experts. From pepper spray to hantavirus to food laced with chemical toxins, anything you put into your body – whether it’s a spray or a bit of food – could be just the thing to make you sick. People who consume poison can suffer a range of symptoms, including high fever, a fast heartbeat, vomiting, diarrhea, blood in the urine, shivering, muscle cramps and fainting. The long-term consequences can be even more serious, with cases occasionally ending in death.
“Unfortunately, there’s been cases that have resulted in death,” said Vanessa Sullon, senior global health specialist at the World Health Organization.
Spiked drinks could be a lethal food item — flavored capsules are often difficult to detect, and they can contain ethylene glycol, a substance that slows down the body’s metabolism and takes as much as 30 minutes to kick in, Sullon said.
“Within three to five minutes, blood pressure plummets, and it stays that way,” she said. If someone drinks the capsule and has an allergic reaction, that could make the person lethargic for hours.
“This is a pretty serious situation if you end up ingesting it, so it’s really important that parents be vigilant about whether they’re taking drinks in a color that doesn’t come from their normal diet, whether they’re consuming any of their products, and make sure they know what the ingredients are,” Sullon said.
Other, more benign cases might be natural disasters or power outages that cause relatively small concentrations of chemicals, like hydrogen cyanide, which can be found in pungent household items like shavings of thistles or pine needles or, as Sullon said, “candles.” If a candle burns out too quickly, Sullon said, the chemical can escape to the cloud of toxic fumes that fill homes or apartment buildings after a storm.
“If they come in contact with hydrogen cyanide, the symptoms are not dissimilar to coming into contact with a hazmat-type situation,” Sullon said. “Death can occur very quickly.”
The symptoms of exposure to hydrochloric acid could appear more frightening if an individual begins having hallucinations or is confused by his or her emotions, and Sullon said the mental anguish caused by acid reflux or ulcers could raise the risk of ingesting the poison.
Some of the warnings put out this week haven’t been over backyard campfires – police departments in Chicago and Seattle, among others, had issued warnings that fires could emit chloracne bacteria, known to cause skin burns in up to 90 percent of people who are exposed.