As must-haves for every home, reusable ice packs can sometimes attract our little ones’ attention, especially those with colorful and kid-friendly designs. The peacock-blue coloured gel could easily be mistaken for dessert, and a toddler may find it hard to resist a bite.
Because parents cannot glue their protective eyes on their babies all the time, concerns on the safety of ice packs for children are rife.
The National Capital Poison Center (NCPC) reminds us that even if children’s ice packs are labelled as non-toxic (and most are), a certain type of ice pack can send you running to the doctor if consumed.
What’s inside a reusable gel pack?
With proper use, ice packs for children are safe, especially homemade ones. Hence, let’s focus our attention on reusable and instant ice packs and what they’re made from.
1. Propylene glycol
This compound of viscous, odourless and colourless liquid is used as a synthetic food additive. Being in the same chemical group as alcohol, this compound dissolves better than water and is great at retaining moisture.
Various food and beverage products use propylene glycol as an anti-caking agent, an emulsifier, stabilizer, thickener and dough strengthener, among other applications.
2. Hydroxyethyl cellulose
Made from pine and spruce tree trunk-derived gum, this compound is mainly a thickening and gelling agent used in cosmetics, cleaning compounds and other household products. This substance helps hold the pack’s gel-like form and is responsible for its reusability.
3. Vinyl-coated silica gel
This essential gel pack additive holds the ingredients together and retains the cold temperature once you remove the pack from the freezer. Silica gel is made synthetically from silicon dioxide and is generally non-toxic, according to the NCPC.
4. Sodium polyacrylate
This compound is a thickener and can absorb as well as hold on to water molecules, making it the top choice as a thickening agent. This chemical likewise increases the stability and viscosity of water-based compounds.
5. Non-toxic blue dye
Jacob Spencer first filed a patent for a reusable gel pack in 1971. He was also responsible for the pack’s peacock-blue coloring that’s still carried by most manufacturers to this day.
Are reusable gel packs toxic?
In general, gel packs are not toxic, but a few gel pack ingredients may cause discomfort when ingested. Propylene glycol, when accidentally consumed in small doses, causes minimal irritation. The World Health Organization pegs an acceptable ingestion dose as 25mg for every kilo of body weight.
Consumed in large doses, propylene glycol can cause symptoms such as severe drowsiness, decreased heart rate and slowed breathing. In severe cases, the compound could cause seizures, loss of consciousness, renal failure and may send one into comatose.
Another gel pack additive, sodium polyacrylate in powder form, may be harmful to the nasal membrane and should not be inhaled. If swallowed in small doses, it rarely causes toxicity, though.
Gel packs with antifreeze
Reusable packs from the old days used to contain a very toxic substance named diethylene glycol or ethylene glycol, also known as antifreeze.
Many years ago, a two-year old child and his mother found out about this death-dealing substance the hard way, when the child developed renal failure and brain injury after accidentally ingesting the contents of a gel pack laden with antifreeze.
Despite being a poisonous substance, ethylene glycol apparently has an extremely sweet taste, and children are naturally drawn to sweets, oblivious to the danger.
Fortunately, ice packs containing this toxic substance have been recalled from the market and are no longer available since a few years ago.
What are instant cold packs made of?
This type of ice pack may be handy in emergencies or when you’re out in the woods, but they are considered more dangerous than reusable children’s ice packs because of the following potentially toxic components:
6. Ammonium Nitrate
Responsible for cooling the pack and producing the cold temperature, this compound is highly water-soluble and is used as an explosive. In its white, solid crystal form, it can cause irritation to the skin upon contact.
Because of its possible application as an explosive, the U.S. sought to regulate its use by passing the Ammonium Nitrate Security Act in 2005. This drastically led to the reduction of ammonium nitrate makers and suppliers.
You may be more familiar with this chemical being used as a fertilizer, but urea is also used in instant cold packs to create an endothermic, or heat-absorbing reaction.
8. Ammonium Chloride
Some reformulated versions of instant cold packs use ammonium chloride, which is deemed safer than ammonium nitrate. This chemical compound is used in cold medicines for humans and to rid of urinary stones in goats, cattle and sheep. It can be hazardous in its solid or gas form, though.
Both reusable and instant cold packs contain water and it is, perhaps, the major component of both types of packs. It goes without saying that water is non-toxic and safe, unless mixed with hazardous compounds and unintentionally ingested.
How does an instant cold pack work?
There are two bags inside an instant ice pack—one contains water and another one holding the ammonium nitrate, ammonium chloride or urea. When you shake, break or hit the pack, the two substances mix and an endothermic reaction is initiated.
An endothermic reaction allows for the absorption of heat in the surroundings and lowers the water’s temperature to almost the freezing point.
This makes instant cold packs very useful in emergency situations and other instances where ice is not available.
Are instant cold packs toxic?
The NCPC cautions parents about the use of instant ice packs, especially those that contain a toxic substance called ammonium nitrate. Other instant cold pack additives, such as calcium ammonium nitrate or urea, are less toxic and need a sizable amount of chemicals to be ingested before causing serious symptoms.
What if a child accidentally ingests the contents of an instant cold pack?
As much as possible, you don’t want this to happen, as ammonium nitrate is a toxic chemical compound that, when ingested, causes the expansion of blood vessels, lowering blood pressure and reducing the amount of blood flowing to the vital organs.
It can also lead to methemoglobinemia, an impairment of the oxygen-carrying ability of red blood cells, and hemolysis, or the destruction of red blood cells. An individual who’s affected by these conditions will experience dizziness, fatigue, headache, shortness of breath and bluish lips and nail beds.
The extent of urea’s toxicity to humans is not fully known, but a study has shown that exposure to high doses of urea may exacerbate renal and lung diseases. If ingested in large doses, urea can cause vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness and nausea to its victim. This compound is also found to be highly carcinogenic to rats.
Classified as a moderately hazardous chemical, ammonium chloride fumes can cause severe eye irritation. Constant exposure can negatively impact kidney function or cause an allergy similar to asthma.
How to prevent accidental ingestion of gel packs
- Follow instructions on ice packs’ usage.
- Immediately dispose of broken or leaking ice packs.
- Closely supervise children when using ice packs.
First aid for toddlers who ingest reusable gel packs
Aside from staying calm, here’s how to ensure that your child’s condition does not worsen:
- Take the product away from your child. Wet a soft, clean cloth and wipe it on your child’s mouth.
- Rinse your child’s mouth and allow him to take a few sips of water to clear their throat.
- If the gel comes in contact with your child’s eyes, run clean tap water over their eyes for 15 minutes.
- Do not induce vomiting unless instructed by a poison control staff. According to NCPC, forcing your child to vomit is not effective and may even hurt their throat, causing additional harm.
Skin contact does not cause any irritation, but wash your child’s skin immediately with soap and water. Seek doctor’s help if the symptom worsens or your child complains of further discomfort.
Symptoms of poisoning in your child
It is unlikely for your child to develop serious symptoms in small ingestions. If any, minor irritations such as upset stomach or loose stool could occur.
In cases of instant cold pack ingestion, look out for these signs of possible poisoning in your child:
- Nausea and/or vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain.
- Pain or burning in or around your child’s nose or mouth.
- Fever or chills.
- Difficulties in breathing or swallowing.
- Loss of appetite.
- Skin rashes, blue lips and skin.
- Headache or irritability, drowsiness, seizures, loss of consciousness or unresponsiveness.
Accidental ingestion of children’s reusable ice packs should not cause major concerns, apart from slight mouth and stomach irritation. Instant cold packs are a different story, because they contain moderately hazardous chemicals, and here’s where you should be more careful.
The best way to avoid accidents is to supervise ice pack use in children or to keep these packs away from their reach as much as possible.
Do you have questions about children’s ice packs? Is there anything we can help you with? Don’t hesitate to contact us here.