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Mother Urges Adding Substance to Deter Swallowing : 'Bitter' Campaign Over Toxic Products

July 16, 1989|BOB BAUM | Associated Press

ALBANY, Ore. — What Lynn Tylczak wants to put in household products would make you gag.

Literally.

The 33-year-old mother of two has launched a campaign to add the world's bitterest substance--as described in the Guinness Book of World Records--to garden sprays, antifreeze, window cleaner and other poisons. The goal is to make them so bitter that children will immediately spit them out.

"I figured I should taste it to tell people how bad it is," Tylczak said. "It really made my mouth feel like a place where old spiders go to die. I went around for weeks spitting. I looked like I played major league baseball. My mom thought I'd taken up chewing tobacco."

Her crusade began Feb. 6 when she heard on the radio that the compound known as denatonium benzoate, generally sold under the trademark Bitrex, is put into poisonous materials in Great Britain. Bittering compounds also are used in West Germany and are required by law in antifreeze in Australia and pesticides in Japan. In the United States, a few products, such as Bold and Solo liquid detergents and Sterno fuel, contain it.

The free-lance writer took her 5-year-old son and 3-month-old daughter to the Oregon State University library to find out more. It was three weeks before she found an article on the substance discovered 30 years ago by McFarlan-Smith Ltd. of Britain and used generally to denature alcohol.

"I tried writing manufacturers and got no good response, and I got nothing from the politicians," she said. "They sent me form letters saying, 'Thank you for the input. Don't forget to vote for me in the next election.' I thought, 'I'm going to have to demonstrate that people care about this. . . . '

"I wrote to about 20 of the big newspapers, then I wrote to consumer groups, magazines, health magazines, insurance magazines, the people I thought would pick it up."

Tylczak and about 20 Albany-area women formed Project Poison Proof, which has gotten thousands of letters of support. "I call it a leverage blackmail opportunity. I can take pictures of me with the letters and send them to the manufacturers. Now I'm not just Lynn Tylczak causing trouble, I'm Lynn Tylczak with the force of X-number of people causing trouble."

The National Safety Council has called on manufacturers to use Bitrex in all appropriate products. Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Tylczak to say he would introduce a bill to require a bittering compound in all poisonous liquid consumer products.

"It is really kicking interest up to a new level," said Mitchell Tracy of Henley Chemicals Inc. in Montvale, N.J., the U.S. distributor of Bitrex.

Tylczak said the bittering compound would cost less than a half-cent per pint and would augment the use of childproof containers. Sixty-five percent of childproof containers sent to the American Assn. of Poison Control Centers failed to withstand children's attempts to open them, she said.

But most manufacturers don't want to draw attention to the dangerousness of their products, and say there's no demand for the bittering agent, she said.

Bitrex has been used in Solo since 1981 and in Bold since 1985 because for some unknown reason children seem more susceptible to drinking those products, said Procter & Gamble Inc. spokeswoman Jennifer Bailey.

It isn't used in other products because there has been no serious problem, Bailey said. "Our safety record with our detergents is pristine."

If consumer demand is strong enough, Procter & Gamble will study the matter further, she said. "On the other hand, we don't want people to let down their guard about proper storage and usage of these products just because we put a Bitrex-safe concept across the front of them."

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