The laundry detergent pods that have become a popular household product in recent years are as whimsically colored as they are especially risky for small kids who might mistake them for a sugary treat, according to research published earlier this June in The BMJ.

The researchers, analyzing data taken from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (which records hospital injuries involving consumer products), found that there were 35,876 emergency department visits related to laundry detergent involving children under the age of 18 from 2012 to 2014.

Of these, 9,814 were the result of exposure to laundry pods and, while they were the minority, injuries caused by pods appeared to be more serious — they led to hospitalizations at more than four times the rate seen with injuries from standard detergent. And virtually all pod injuries involved children younger than 5 years old.

"The results of the current study suggest that pod-related exposures were more likely to result in hospitalization of the child, which is a marker of injury severity, and disproportionately affect children age 5 and younger," said lead author Dr. Thomas Swain, a public health researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in a statement. Meanwhile, "the high proportion of adolescents affected by both product types highlights the importance of product safety for both categories…” Although researchers don’t know the specific reason the youth who had severe reactions needed to be hospitalized, they speculate that the higher concentration of detergent in the pods may be a significant factor.

Yet more research finds that laundry pods pose an unique risk for small children under five, who might confuse them for candy. Consumer Reports

There were also marked differences in the type of harm caused by the two types of packaging. Skin rashes were the most common injury related to non-pod detergent exposure, at 72 percent, while children exposed to laundry pods were diagnosed with poisoning at roughly the same rate. The finding only adds further support to the idea commonly held by consumer health advocates that most pod injuries are caused when children try to eat them, mistaking the brightly colored products for candy. And 25 percent of pod injuries involved the eye, indicating that there’s more than one reason to be worried about them.

"It is telling that the vast majority of pod-related emergency visits were in very young children, and most were classified as cases of poisoning," said co-author Dr. Gerald McGwin Jr., also a researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and associate director of the university’s Center for Injury Sciences. "Intriguingly, cases of eye injury were greater for pod detergents over non-pod products. The bottom line is that something as innocuous as doing the laundry can pose a significant danger, especially to small children."

Consumer advocates and lawmakers have been pressuring laundry pod manufacturers to create a safer version of their products, especially in light of several deaths related to them. Most notably, the product review magazine Consumer Reports announced in July of 2015 that it would stop placing laundry pod brands on its recommended list of detergents and expressly advised that parents with children under the age of 6 not use any in their household, at least until these proposed changes — for example, a pod that’s harder to bite open or especially bitter detergent that discourages ingestion — were made a reality.

While Swain and his colleagues are also advocates for a better laundry pod design, they believe that there’s plenty parents can do themselves to ensure their children stay safe.

"A greater effort should be made to appropriately educate the public about the dangers of laundry detergents, specifically pods, so a safe home environment can be established," Swain said. "While new regulations such as childproof containers, opaque packaging, and less appealing and colorful pods could reduce the number of pod-related emergency department visits for children, caregivers should store detergents, along with other chemicals, in a secure location where children cannot easily access them."

For those especially worried about their children’s safety around laundry detergents in general, the Environmental Working Group has routinely released a consumer list of cleaning products categorized by their level of hazardous ingredients.

Source: Swain T, McGwin G, Griffin R. Laundry Pod and Non-Pod Detergent Related Emergency Department Visits Occurring In Children In The USA. The BMJ. 2016.