It isn't an epidemic. It isn't even a frequent occurrence _ yet. But it's yet another tragic effect of the drug culture on today's children. And it can kill them.
Infants and toddlers are being poisoned by accidentally eating or drinking or inhaling illegal drugs left around their homes.
A child gets up in the morning while her parents still are in bed. She toddles to the living room, where the remains of last night's party litter the room. She finds a rock of crack cocaine on the floor. Or she finds some white powder on a table. Or she picks up some liquid in a cup. Young children will eat anything.
Accidental ingestion of illegal drugs by young children has been reported by hospitals in large U.S. cities for a couple of years. It's easy to think that it couldn't happen here, in the land of sunshine and retirement homes.
But Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg has handled several cases. Dr. Robert Morelli, a Clearwater pediatrician who is chief of pediatrics at Morton Plant Hospital, has treated two cases of crack poisoning. And Tampa General Hospital's pediatric emergency center has treated young children for accidental ingestion of illegal drugs, though no statistics are kept on how many.
Dr. Gregory Gaar, who is an attending physician in that center at Tampa General and also co-medical director of the Florida Poison Information Center, says the problem isn't always crack cocaine. He recalls children made dangerously ill by drinking iso-butyl nitrite, the drug found in "poppers." It causes a disorder that makes children's blood unable to carry oxygen.
Ingestion of cocaine causes a spectrum of problems in young children, from the jitters to bleeding in the brain. The usual symptom is uncontrolled seizures.
Hospital emergency rooms here and elsewhere now do a urine test for drugs if children are brought in with seizures but have no fever and no history of seizures. They must do the tests because parents seldom will tell the medical staff that the child has ingested drugs, even though the child's life may be in danger. Instead they stand by silently while doctors search for the cause of the symptoms.
Poisonings by illegal drugs are being described in pediatric medical literature. One such article in Pediatrics told of a 9-month-old girl brought to a Boston hospital, apparently after she got into cocaine powder left in her house after a party. The baby had prolonged seizures and elevated blood pressure and had to spend several days being poked and probed in the hospital, but she survived. The physicians who wrote the article said it brought back memories of "morning-after syndrome," a phrase used by doctors to describe the symptoms of young children who had alcohol poisoning after drinking leftover alcoholic drinks the morning after a party.
Another article in Pediatrics relates the terrible injuries suffered by a 20-month-old girl who drank lye that was in a cup on her kitchen table. Lye is used to make crack cocaine. Doctors who knew that also did a drug screen on the toddler and found she tested positive for cocaine.
Last year the Washington Post wrote about a 6-month-old boy who died after suffering seizures. According to police quoted in the story, it was only after an autopsy revealed cocaine poisoning that the mother told investigators she left the boy in a walker in a room where several rocks of crack were on a table.
When a child ingests illegal drugs at home, doctors are obligated to report the poisoning to police. Parents can be arrested for child abuse, in addition to facing drug charges.
I thought about this growing problem when I read about little Lamar Ford. The 3-year-old died after being hit by a car as he stood in front of his grandparents' Clearwater home Aug. 25. Police said he was run over twice by a panicked motorist fleeing the neighborhood after a drug deal went sour.
Lamar didn't get to choose the environment he lived in. He was a helpless observer of a culture that survives on drugs and dies by them. It is hardly a surprise that cocaine got Lamar in the end. If not a careening car, it might have been accidental ingestion of drugs or gunfire related to the drug trade. Police say gunshots and weapons frequently were reported at Lamar's grandparents' home. And after a search there in late 1989, police said they found crack in a dresser drawer and residue of cocaine powder on papers in the house.
The lives of many children are at risk. Trusting and innocent, they don't know to run or to stay out of the way. They don't know not to eat the white powder, not to drink the liquid that looks like juice in a cup.
For so many of today's children, life is a mine field.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.