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 the local emergency number (such as 911), or the local poison control 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 (shock)
BRAIN AND SPINE
- Coma (decreased level of consciousness and lack of responsiveness)
- Stupor (decreased awareness, sleepiness, confusion)
- 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 control 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 national hotline 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:
- Blood and urine tests
- Breathing support, including oxygen through a tube into the lungs, and a breathing machine (ventilator)
- Bronchoscopy -- camera down the throat to look for burns in the airways and lungs (if the poison was aspirated)
- Chest x-ray
- ECG (heart tracing)
- Endoscopy -- camera down the throat to look for burns in the esophagus and the stomach
- Fluids through a vein (by IV)
- Medicine to reverse the effect of the poison and treat symptoms
- Surgical removal of burned skin (skin debridement)
- Tube through the mouth into the stomach to aspirate (suck out) the stomach. This is done only when the person gets medical care within 30 to 45 minutes of the poisoning, and a very large amount of the substance has been swallowed
- 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.
Swallowing such poisons can have severe effects on many parts of the body. Burns in the airway or gastrointestinal tract can lead to tissue death. This may result in infection, shock and death, even several months after substance was swallowed. Scar tissue in the affected areas can lead to long-term problems with breathing, swallowing, and digestion.
Prolonged exposure to metal polish fumes can cause serious, long-term health problems.
Kuschner WG, Blanc PD. Acute responses to toxic exposures. In: Broaddus VC, Ernst JD, King TE, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 103.
Mofenson HC, Caraccio TR, McGujigan M, Greensher J. Medical toxicology. In: Kellerman RD, Rakel DP, eds. Conn's Current Therapy 2022. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:1372-1425.
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.
Last reviewed on: 11/13/2021
Reviewed by: Jesse Borke, MD, CPE, FAAEM, FACEP, Attending Physician at Kaiser Permanente, Orange County, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.