Tide Pods are arguably one of the most successful innovations in the storied, 181-year history of ?consumer goods leviathan Procter & Gamble. They’re also the top-selling brand in a household-product category that became ubiquitous practically overnight. Eight years ago, liquid-detergent packets were barely a presence in U.S. stores; by 2018 they accounted for nearly one-fifth of the laundry detergent market and $1.5 billion in sales. And P&G, the maker of Tide Pods and another popular brand, Gain Flings, controls 79% of that business.
But the design factors that have made laundry pods so successful—their compactness, easy accessibility, and aesthetically pleasing look—are also potentially fatal flaws. Too often, it appears, young children and seniors with dementia mistake them for candy and try to eat them. And when that happens, they’re more likely than other detergents and other household cleaning products to cause serious injury.
Laundry pods’ threat to public safety became apparent immediately after their North America launch in 2012. Between 2011 and 2013, the number of annual emergency-department visits for all laundry detergent-related injuries for young children more than tripled, from 2,862 to 9,004.
The majority of injuries resolve within 24 hours without long-lasting effects. Still, pods make up 80% of all major injuries related to laundry detergent, according to the American Association for Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), despite accounting for only 16% of the market. In rare cases like Bella’s, long-term complications can ensue. And nine people have died in the U.S.—two children younger than age 2 and seven seniors with dementia—in cases definitively linked to laundry pods.
To the extent that most consumers are aware of these dangers, it’s thanks to an asinine Internet trend. In late 2017 a handful of teenagers started posting videos online of themselves eating laundry packets in a surreal viral phenomenon known as the Tide Pod Challenge. That cultural episode cast laundry-pod poisoning as a self-inflicted wound, harming only the irresponsible. But the Challenge has accounted for only a tiny fraction of the injuries caused by this now pervasive product.
P&G and other detergent makers, startled by soaring numbers and prodded by regulators, have taken the product back to the drawing board more than once. But despite multiple changes to the pods’ design and exterior packaging, intensive industrywide meetings on the issue, and seven years of brainstorming and testing, the situation has not substantially improved when measured by the total number of calls to poison-control centers and emergency-department visits.
Pods have prompted an average of 11,568 poison-control calls a year involving young children since 2013, their first full year on the U.S. market. (The majority of calls, or exposures, involving pods are not associated with serious injuries, but they’re the best ?population-wide data available to measure pods’ impact on public health.)
And when injuries are inflicted, they remain disproportionately severe: In 2017, the most recent year for which figures are available, 35% of pod exposure cases among the whole population wound up being treated in health care facilities; for all other laundry detergents and for household cleaning substances, that figure was 16% when pods were excluded.
Consumer advocates and public health experts argue that, for all its well-intentioned efforts, the industry has refused to confront the brightly colored elephant in the room: the swirly, multi-hue design schemes that make the mini-packets look so much like candy. If manufacturers can bring themselves to make all pods look neutral and less inviting, says Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, “we can design this problem out of existence.”
P&G and other detergent makers point to different injury measures, arguing that they’ve brought down the market-adjusted rate of exposures even without such changes, by improving the childproofing of packaging and educating the public on proper safety habits. “Our job is to prevent children from having access to the product completely,” says Damon Jones, P&G’s vice president for global communications and advocacy.
While they haven’t ruled out future changes, industry and regulators have announced no plans for a more aggressive safety intervention. But in an era in which many consumer-facing businesses have tremendous leeway to regulate themselves, the Tide Pod dilemma raises urgent and disturbing questions. Has P&G truly reached the limit as to how safe it can make its popular product? With no legal requirements to make pods safer, do ethics require the industry to go further? Can an “improved” product that still causes thousands of hospital visits a year be considered safe? And at what point does the manufacturer’s responsibility for accidents end and the consumer’s begin?
That these questions need to be asked testifies to a fundamental truth of America’s consumer product ecosystem: It’s largely up to companies to determine how to respond to a consumer hazard. While government agencies occasionally step in, safety decisions usually come down to business leaders balancing the success of a product against reputational and legal concerns. At least for now, P&G has made its determination: The Tide Pod is safe.