Metal polish poisoning
Metal polishes are used to clean metals, including brass, copper, or silver. This article discusses the harmful effects from swallowing metal polish.
This article is for information only. DO NOT use it to treat or manage an actual poison exposure. If you or someone you are with has an exposure, call your local emergency number (such as 911), or your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.
The poisonous ingredients found in metal polishes are hydrocarbons and ammonia. Hydrocarbons are substances that contain only hydrogen and carbon.
Metal polishes are sold under various brand names. Examples include Brasso and Tarn-X.
Metal polish poisoning can cause symptoms in many parts of the body.
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
- Low blood pressure -- develops rapidly
BRAIN AND SPINE
- Coma (decreased level of consciousness and lack of responsiveness)
- Necrosis (holes) in the skin or underlying tissues
Get medical help right away. DO NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by poison control or a health care provider.
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 them to fresh air.
Before Calling Emergency
Get the following information:
- Person's age, weight, and condition
- Name of the product (ingredients and strength, if known)
- Time it was swallowed
- Amount swallowed
Your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. This 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.
What to Expect at the Emergency Room
Take the container with you to the hospital, if possible.
The 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 placed down the throat to see burns in the airways and lungs
- Chest x-ray
- ECG (heart tracing)
- Endoscopy -- camera placed 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
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.
Gummin DD. Hydrocarbons. In: Adams JG, ed. Emergency Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 152.
Wang GS, Buchanan JA. Hydrocarbons. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 152.
Reviewed By: Jesse Borke, MD, FACEP, FAAEM, Attending Physician at FDR Medical Services/Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Buffalo, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.