Chicago grandmother takes on Procter & Gamble Co. over Tide Pods packaging

Erica Johnson: What they're doing isn't working

CINCINNATI -- Erica Johnson understands those who say it’s a parent’s fault when a child is poisoned by single-load laundry packages.

“I was one of those people,” she said.

But then her 15-month-old grandson, Dakari, popped a Tide Pods laundry packet in his mouth before she could react to prevent it. The child spent four days in a Chicago area hospital with chemical burns to his mouth, throat and stomach.

“If you blink for a second, the baby can get it in their mouth,” Johnson said. “Their little razor teeth make that thing explode immediately.”

Johnson’s online petition at Change.org that was first reported in September by 9 On Your Side's consumer reporter John Matarese asks Procter & Gamble to individually wrap Tide Pods products to make it harder for children to ingest them and make the colorful pods look less like candy.

More than 33,000 people have signed Johnson’s petition.

A second Change.org petition is calling for changes to Tide Pods’ warning label, claiming that P&G is incorrectly advising parents to give their children milk after ingesting Tide Pods.

“The warning label on this product is making children sicker,” said the petition by Marsha Geray.

P&G said the use of a neutral liquid such as milk or water is a standard treatment approach people who ingest irritants.

“Any incident where a child is injured is upsetting and that is why we and our colleagues in the cleaning industry have worked so hard to remind parents to keep these types of products out of the reach of children,” said Tracey Long, a spokesman for P&G’s fabric care division. “We have been the first to make immediate interventions to the packaging of single use laundry pacs to make them more difficult to open for children, to obscure the contents and increase the size and position of the warning labels.”

P&G Working With Pediatrics Experts

In July, P&G announced a “Safe Home” initiative with the American Academy of Pediatrics to educate consumers on the safe usage and storage of cleaning products.

Long said the company did “extensive research and worked with our colleagues in the poison control centers” before determining that “the critical factor” in preventing laundry pac poisoning is keeping the products away from kids."

Johnson counters: “What they’re doing isn’t working. I’m hoping we can work together to figure this out.”

Change.org contacted WCPO to offer an interview with Johnson. The for-profit web site often promotes the petitions of its users to generate more traffic. The site makes money by selling nonprofits ads and lists of petition signers friendly to their mission, including animal rights, human rights and consumer protection.

“A lot of times people will have a really compelling story and we give them tips on how to get media attention and who the right decision makers might be to reach out to,” said Pulin Modi, a Washington D.C. –based campaign organizer for Change.org.

Modi said Johnson’s campaign is one of the most active on the site this month, drawing 33,540 supporters as of Oct. 4.

An administrative assistant from Homewood, Ill., Johnson said she spends about two hours a day promoting her online petition and researching the laundry pods problem.

“It’s a really dangerous product,” she said. “Children shouldn’t have to die for us to do our laundry.”

 

'My Mission: Make These Pods Safe'

A Florida infant died in August after eating a detergent packet made by Sun Products. The American Association of Poison Control Centers says “single-load laundry detergent packages” have been linked to more than 6,700 poisoning cases involving children under the age of 5 in the first eight months of 2013.

Johnson’s grandson ingested a Tide Pods packet on Sept. 13. Johnson has no washer and dryer in her home. She was preparing to make a laundry run when she put a single pod in a laundry basket on top of her dirty clothes. Dakari put the pod in his mouth before she and her 21-year-old daughter could react.

“Of course there are people that say it’s not P&G’s job to watch your children,” Johnson said. “Before this happened I was one of those people. We were both in the room with him and we were both watching.”

Johnson described herself as a lifelong Tide user who converted to Tide Pods because it was more convenient than carrying a detergent bottle to a laundry facility outside of her home. She always kept the package out reach and thought she was being careful enough to avoid an accident.

Johnson said P&G has contacted her about the incident. She has not talked a lawyer about her grandson’s injury.

“Suing isn’t my mission right now,” she said. “My mission is to make these pods safe.”

Lawyer: Litigation likelihood high

With more than 13,000 cases of laundry pod poisoning documented by poison control centers in the last two years, the likelihood of litigation is high, said Christopher Robinette, associate professor at the Widener University School of Law in Harrisburg, PA.

“There are two different issues here. Strict liability is one thing. Public relations is another,” he said. “The company is being responsive. They’ve seen there is a problem and tried to deal with it in terms of the opaque packaging and the (child-resistant) latch.”

He said P&G’s liability risk will depend on a lot of factors, including the jurisdiction where cases may be filed and facts of each potential case.

He said a common standard used in product liability cases is “whether there is a reasonable alternative design. Is there something P&G can do to design its product differently that would solve the problem?”

In terms of public relations, Robinette said P&G faces a risk of “reputational damage” if the Change.org petition continues to pick up steam.

“Petition campaigns generally are not terribly effective,” he said. “But obviously the more people you get to sign them, the more they’re going to be paying attention.”

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