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Metal polish poisoning

Definition

Metal polishes are used to clean metals, including brass, copper, or silver. This article discusses the harmful effects from swallowing metal polish.

This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Poisonous Ingredient

The poisonous ingredients found in metal polishes are ammonia and hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are substances that contain only hydrogen and carbon.

Where Found

Metal polishes are sold under various brand names. Examples include Brasso and Tarn-X.

Symptoms

Airways and lungs:

  • Breathing difficulty (from inhalation)
  • Throat swelling (may also cause breathing difficulty)
  • Eyes, ears, nose, and throat
  • Severe pain or burning in the throat, mouth area, nose, eyes, or ears
  • Vision loss

Stomach and intestines:

  • Abdominal pain -- severe
  • Bloody stools
  • Burns of the esophagus (food pipe)
  • Vomiting, possibly with blood

Heart and blood:

  • Collapse
  • Low blood pressure -- develops rapidly

Brain and spine:

  • Coma (decreased level of consciousness and lack of responsiveness)
  • Convulsions
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Headache
  • Nervousness
  • Staggering
  • Stupor
  • Weakness

Skin:

  • Burns
  • Irritation
  • Necrosis (holes) in the skin or underlying tissues

Home Care

Get medical help right away. Do not make a person throw up unless told to do so by poison control or a health care professional.

If the chemical is on the skin or in the eyes, flush with lots of water for at least 15 minutes.

If the person breathed in the poison, immediately move him or her to fresh air.

Before Calling Emergency

Determine the following information:

  • The person's age, weight, and condition
  • The name of the product (ingredients and strengths, if known)
  • The time it was swallowed
  • The amount swallowed

Poison Control What to Expect at the Emergency Room

The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does not need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Take the container with you to the hospital, if possible.

The health care provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated as appropriate. The person may receive:

  • Breathing support, including a tube through the mouth into the lungs, and a breathing machine (ventilator) 
  • Bronchoscopy -- camera down the throat to see burns in the airways and lungs
  • Chest x-ray
  • EKG (heart tracing)
  • Endoscopy -- camera down the throat to see burns in the esophagus and the stomach
  • Fluids through a vein (IV)
  • Surgical removal of burned skin (skin debridement)
  • Tube through the mouth into the stomach to wash out the stomach (gastric lavage)
  • Washing of the skin (irrigation) -- perhaps every few hours for several days

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well a person does depends on the amount of poison swallowed and how quickly treatment was received. The faster a person gets medical help, the better the chance for recovery.

Extensive damage to the mouth, throat, and stomach are possible. The ultimate outcome depends on the extent of this damage. Damage can continue to occur for several weeks after the poison was swallowed. Death may occur as long as a month after the poison was swallowed.

Prolonged exposure to lacquer fumes can cause serious, long-term health problems.

References

Lee DC. Hydrocarbons. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls, RM, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 158.

Mirkin DB. Benzene and related aromatic hydrocarbons. In: Shannon MW, Borron SW, Burns MJ, eds. Haddad and Winchester's Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2007:chap 94.


Review Date: 1/26/2014
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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