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Doctors concerned about ‘legal highs’

UK poisons watchdog records big rise in calls concerning illegal substances and carbon monoxide poisoning

Mark Gould

Monday, 02 September 2013

The UK poisons watchdog, the National Poisons Information Service (NPIS), has reported an almost 50% rise in calls from doctors and other health workers about so-called "legal highs" such as BZP, GBL and naphyrone over the last 12 months, according to its annual report.

Between April 2012 and March this year, phone calls to experts about "legal highs" went up 49%, from 116 in 2011-12 to 173 in 2012-13, and searches for information on such substances on the NPIS’ online database TOXBASE, climbed by 128%, from 1125 to 2561 in the same period.

The service, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, has also seen an increase in calls about, and numbers of patients being treated for, carbon monoxide poisoning, rising from 248 to 434 over the same period. Also throughout the year more than 50,000 calls were made to NPIS on a variety of topics and its online database TOXBASE was used more than 1.6 million times.

The NPIS was established in 1963 when about two thirds of the phone calls it received concerned children exposed to various household products. In 2013, accidental poisonings of children in the home remain a significant concern, with almost 14,000 telephone enquiries received about children under 5, representing almost 30% of the calls received.

Professor Simon Thomas, Director of NPIS’ Newcastle unit, said: "Two years ago we reported that queries around treatments for mephedrone, an at-the-time popular ‘legal high’ had tailed off after the government took steps to ban it. This year we’ve seen rises in queries about other ‘legal highs’. Many of these are variations on existing illegal substances. Although they may not be illegal to possess, users should not think this means they are safe for human use – far from it.

"People should be aware that as many of these products are relatively new there is much less information available about their safety.

“Some legal substances can be as, and sometimes more, hazardous than their illegal counterparts. These substances are also dangerous because it can be hard to identify their active constituents and there is lack of experience of their adverse effects, making it difficult for treating clinicians to manage people experiencing toxic effects effectively. Remember just because it is legal does not mean it is safe."

Professor Thomas, said simple steps can make prevent accidental poisoning. Safe storage of medicines and other hazardous household products in their original childproof containers, locked away separately from food and drinks can help parents and carers reduce the risk of children coming into contact with substances that might harm them.

Commenting on the service's anniversary, he added: "The way our service works has changed hugely over the last 50 years but what has not changed is our ability to be able to spot emerging trends and flag them with the government, regulators, public health professionals and clinicians.

"Although the way we deliver our service today is very different from when NPIS was set up 50 years ago, the focus of what we do – providing expertise to frontline doctors and nurses for the best possible treatment of patients – is unchanged."

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