Child Health: Labels Urged for Food That Can Choke

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Earlier this year, we posted a blog on our website in regard to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement in regard to the prevention of choking among children.  Earlier this week, the New York Times featured an in-depth story on an issue that is very much a part of this policy statement:  food choking hazards among small children.  The article discusses the advocacy efforts to place warning labels on foods, which pose a choking hazard to small children, as well as the proposition that small children should not be allowed to eat certain foods at all.  The article starts with an all too familiar setting that ended in tragedy:

On a July afternoon in 2006, Patrick Hale microwaved a bag of popcorn for his two young children and sat down with them to watch television. When he got up to change the channel, he heard a strange noise behind him, and turned to see his 23-month-old daughter, Allison, turning purple and unable to breathe.

As a Marine, he was certified in CPR, but he could not dislodge the popcorn with blows to her back and finger swipes down her throat. He called 911, but it was too late: by the time Allison arrived at the hospital, her heart had stopped beating. An autopsy found that she had inhaled pieces of popcorn into her vocal cords, her bronchial tubes and a lung.

Does this story make you think twice before giving your little ones popcorn?  On a personal note, I called my wife immediately after reading this story, and we discussed the fact that we should no longer allow our son, who is now two and a half, to have any popcorn. Ironically, she was on her way to take him to a movie that was going to be serving….you guessed it, popcorn.

Now, some of you may say “Well, little kids can choke on anything.”  Well, that is true.  However, there are some foods that pose an increased risk of choking.  Consider the dynamics of how a small child eats, as well as the size of their airway:

Children under 4 are at the highest risk, not only because their airways are small (the back of a toddler’s throat narrows to the diameter of a straw) but also because of the way their eating abilities develop. Front teeth usually come in at 6 or 7 months — so babies can bite off a piece of food — but the first molars, which grind food down, do not arrive until about 15 months, and second molars around 26 months.

“Between the ages of 3 and 4, they’re developing their ability to chew adequately and prepare for swallowing,” said Dr. Nisha Kapadia, a pediatric resident at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

When young children chew foods like peanuts, raw carrots and popcorn, some is ground down and some is not, and they tend to swallow unchewed bits of food that can block the airway or be inhaled into the bronchial tubes and lungs.

This concern and the tragic deaths associated with this concern have prompted several organizations to propose various options to attempt to prevent these injuries and deaths.  One such organization is the Center for Science in the Public Interest:

Some advocates say the government should put hazardous foods off limits to young children.

“The F.D.A. needs to set a uniform standard for cautionary information on food that should not be consumed by children under 5,” said Bruce Silverglade, legal director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that lobbied unsuccessfully in 2003 for a bill to require the Food and Drug Administration to develop food labeling regulations.

Where this debate will end up, we don’t know.  However, to think that in 2001 there were 17,500 children 14 years old and younger treated in emergency rooms for choking, with 60% of those events caused by food, there must be a way to create a safer environment for our children when they are eating.  Any suggestions?

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