there’s poison in it

ER visits for intentional poisoning soar, especially among women

By Rita Rubin

The number of people showing up in hospital ERs because of intentional poisoning has soared, a new federal study has found, with women accounting for nearly two-thirds of the cases.

The number of cases of intentional poisoning jumped from 2,609 in 2008 to 14,720 in 2009, according to the latest national data about emergency department visits. Slightly more than a quarter of the patients who showed up at ERs for this type of poisoning were under age 21.

A wide range of substances were involved in the ER visits, including pharmaceutical and illicit drugs, including “date rape” drugs such as Rohypnol, the report from the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, shows. Illegal drugs such as marijuana, stimulants, cocaine and Ecstasy were involved in 30 percent of the emergency room visits. Prescription medications, such as drugs for insomnia, anxiety and pain, were linked to 21 percent of the poisonings. Alcohol was a factor in in 60 percent of the intentional poisonings, with alcohol combined with other drugs almost half of the time.

“When you mix alcohol and another drug, they tend to amplify each other,” says researcher Peter Delany, Ph.D, who worked on the study.

It’s unclear why the numbers jumped in 2009, although Delaney believes hospital emergency departments and the government agency are getting better at determining intentional poisonings. SAMHSA’s role is to track trends and incidents of substance abuse.

However, that doesn’t explain why women are targeted disproportionately. Increased awareness of “date rape” drugs, such as Rohypnol, could be a possibility, Delany suggests.

“You have to be thinking in some cases men are giving something intentionally to women…with the intention of taking advantage of them,” he says. According to the new SAMHSA report, an estimated 3 million American women have experienced drug-related rape in their lifetime.

Intentional poisoning doesn’t necessarily mean someone is trying to kill the victim. In the report released Thursday, SAMHSA defines it as “a direct attempt to hurt someone or an attempt to render that person defenseless against other types of crime.”

Intentional poisoning represents only a tiny fraction of the 4.6 million drug-related emergency room visits in 2009, according to SAMHSA. But the new report notes, intentional poisoning probably is underestimated. Drugs commonly used to do it may leave the body too quickly to be detected, and some people who’ve been intentionally drugged might not seek immediate medical attention. Plus, Delany says, even if they do, they might not remember how they got sick.

Delany advises women, particularly young women, to be extra careful of their surroundings. He cautions, “Do you really want to take a drink from a guy you don’t know?”