The Pittsburgh Poison Center is located about halfway up “Cardiac Hill” within the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center complex. It’s an unassuming place: a reception desk, a few offices, a conference room and a call center.
“There’s not a lot to look at,” said Dr. Michael Lynch, the center’s medical director, “but out of [here] we’re able to help tens of thousands of people a year and save tens of millions of dollars in health care costs.”
The center receives upwards of 250 calls a day, helping parents, industry and pet owners respond to poison exposures. Since most exposures don’t require a trip to the emergency room, the center saves roughly $16 million a year by preventing needless ambulance rides and hospital visits. Beyond providing practical information to callers, however, the poison center also provides peace of mind, Lynch said.
“A large part of our role is to provide reassurance and answer questions no matter what time of day," he said. "We put you in immediate contact with a live human being that can respond to your specific individualized emergency.”
The existence of the poison center and its most recognizable employee, Mr. Yuk, came about in the late '60s and early '70s. The driving force behind a centralized poison center was Dr. Richard Moriarty, at that time training in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
“When the phone rang whoever was the house officer in the emergency department and answered the phone was suddenly the poison person," he said. "And often we didn’t really know what the heck we were doing.”
Bothered by the idea of offering a service the hospital couldn’t confidently deliver, Moriarty set about organizing Children’s resources and finding holes in its knowledge. As he did so, he discovered another problem.
“The traditional warning symbol for poison was the skull and crossbones. Well, we live in a town that happens to have the Pirates,” said Moriarty. “The traditional warning color for poisons was red. Well, kids sorta like red things.”
To develop a new symbol that would warn kids away from toxic substances instead of enticing them, Moriarty and his team enlisted the help of a focus group.
“We sat down with preschoolers and said, ‘If you got into a poison, what would happen?’ And the recurring thoughts were, well, you’d die. You get sick. Or your mother would yell at you.”
A graphic artist mocked up a series of potential symbols in a range of colors. The one that lost the popularity contest was the fluorescent green and scowling face still in use today, though he’s been updated over the years. Increasing public awareness about poison exposures has decreased child fatalities from medicines and household cleaners since 1972, but children accounted for more than one million poison exposures in 2013.
“Poisoning is still the leading cause of accidental death in the United States,” Lynch said.
Despite the dangers presented by the thousands of chemicals found in everyday life, the poison center has endured steep state and federal funding cuts in recent years. In order to continue to provide on-demand assistance, the center has made weight by cutting back on its primary education and prevention programs.
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