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Baby Proof Your Yard : Parents need to become familiar with outdoor and houseplants--some of them are poisonous.

June 18, 1995|ELIZABETH TARNOVE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Tarnove is a San Diego free-lance writer. and

All preparations have been made for the new baby. Wall socket covers are in place and gates secure the staircase.

But what about the landscape? Will thorns mar baby's first exploration outside? Will poisonous mushrooms land Junior in the emergency room? Does that flowering ground cover beckon to both toddlers and honeybees?

Corrine Ray, a community educator for 24 years with the Los Angeles Regional Drug and Poison Information Center before retiring last October, said she stresses this cardinal rule with homeowners: "Know your plants."

Parents of a baby, whether they are landscaping a new house or renovating an existing landscape, should be familiar with all of the plants that could possibly come in contact with their child (including trees that might drop berries or leaves). Ray suggests that parents also be familiar with plants in the neighbor's yard.

With 100,000 reported plant exposures involving children every year, this knowledge is vital in an emergency. If a child eats a toxic plant, critical time could be lost in diagnosis and treatment if the parent cannot readily identify it.

Ray said her agency receives thousands of calls related to plant ingestion a year, but her center does not track statistics by age group. In 1993, the center received about 3,000 calls involving human exposure (either skin contact or ingestion) of a questionable plant.

Plants that prompted the largest number of calls to the center were mushrooms, oleander, philodendron, pyracantha, poinsettia, pothos, poison oak and dieffenbachia, she said.

The San Diego Regional Poison Center, which does keep statistics by age, reports that philodendron is the most commonly ingested plant by children under 6--both locally and nationally.

The plants can cause a burning irritation in the mouth and tongue for about 24 hours. "It's uncomfortable," said center spokesperson Anthony Manoguerra, "but it's not life threatening."

In 1993, the San Diego center received 1,234 calls involving children under 6 eating plants and an additional 111 calls involving small children eating mushrooms.

No other plant type was reported as often as the philodendron family. Other problem plants included some jasmine, lantana and oleander.

Oleander, a plant of concern at both poison centers, is so toxic that some adults have eaten it to commit suicide. However, Manoguerra said, the leaves taste so bitter that most children stop with the first one. "You'd have to eat a dozen leaves before it got serious," he said. In most cases, the quantity that children ingest is enough to cause stomach aches and maybe vomiting, but not death.

Some other potentially fatal plants are rare in Southern California gardens, he said. These include the castor bean, which usually grows in the wild, and tobacco plants.

On mushrooms, Manoguerra's advice for parents is to scout the back yard each morning before letting the youngsters out to play, and to remove and discard any mushrooms. "There are fungicides available," he said, "but I'm not sure they're effective."

He said 2- to 3-year-olds are the most likely to ingest mushrooms accidentally.

While most mushrooms cause vomiting and diarrhea, one native species can be fatal. Amanita ocreata, a pure-white mushroom that generally grows in the vicinity of oak trees, can kill children even in small doses.

But, in other cases, the reputation of a plant may be worse than the plant itself. Periodically, some parent's magazine will publish holiday warnings against poinsettias, but, Manoguerra said, the plant got a bad rap in the 1930s when a medical journal reported the death of a child in Hawaii after eating an unknown plant--presumed to be a poinsettia. Later research with laboratory mice proved the plant not as deadly as its reputation. There were no reported cases of poinsettia poisoning in San Diego for 1993, he added.

The San Diego Center publishes a list of dangerous plants, but Ray cautioned that lists may not always be definitive because often poisons are not uniformly distributed throughout a given plant.

Also, different varieties of the same plant may have different characteristics. For example, she said, the potted poinsettia sold during the holiday season is a nontoxic hybrid, but old varieties grown outdoors may be toxic.

The other factor that makes list-keeping difficult is that people vary in their reactions to the same plant. Some may be more sensitive to certain toxins--such as poison oak--than others.

Dr. Steven Krug, director of the Emergency Department at Children's Hospital in San Diego, estimates that his emergency room sees one plant ingestion case a week. Most cases are identified and treated at home, he said.

Like Krug, Dr. Marshall Morgan, director of emergency medicine at UCLA Medical Center, said he has seen few cases of plant poisoning in children--two or three children with oral burns from dieffenbachia and an occasional child brought in for eating plants.

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