Toddler and Preschool  |  Infants  |  Winter  |  Outdoor and garage hazards

Windshield Washer Fluid: A Winter Hazard

The Bottom Line

Windshield washer solution contains a chemical called methanol. If swallowed, methanol can cause kidney failure, blindness, and death.

The Full Story

Driving in bad weather means preparing for the worst. It's a good idea to stock your car with the right supplies for wintry weather. Pack extra snacks, drinking water, blankets, a portable radio, an extra cell phone charger, a flashlight, and ice scrapers. If you break down in the dead of winter, these items can help keep you safe.

But if children reach certain supplies, it could be trouble. Storing extra windshield washer solution in the back seat may sound like a smart idea when driving in icy conditions. Instead, this is dangerous if little ones can get their hands on it.

To children, a jug of pretty bright blue liquid looks just like juice or soda. In the front seat, mom or dad is at the wheel and distracted by the winter weather. In the back seat, it’'s not hard for a curious child to open that bottle of windshield wiper fluid. (The child-resistant closure is NOT child-proof!)

Windshield wiper solution typically contains 30-50% methanol. Methanol is a highly toxic alcohol. Very small amounts are poisonous – to children, adults, and pets. Symptoms of poisoning don't happen for a while. Someone could swallow even a fatal amount and feel fine for hours.

Drinking windshield washer fluid often causes stomach upset and vomiting at first. Later, the person who swallowed it may appear dizzy, sleepy, confused, or even drunk. Without prompt treatment in the emergency room, a child may suffer permanent blindness or even coma and death.

Adults are sometimes poisoned by windshield washer solution after it's put into another container. It might seem like a good idea to keep a small amount handy for winter weather emergencies. Don't do it! Blue liquid in a beverage bottle looks like something to drink!

Never put windshield washer fluid into a smaller bottle, especially a soda or juice bottle. Putting toxic chemicals in food/drink bottles is inviting danger. You risk poisoning people, or even yourself.

Always keep children away from containers of windshield wiper fluid.

  • Screw the child-resistant cap on tightly.
  • Always store the product in its original container.
  • Lock it up out of sight and reach of children and pets.
  • If you travel with windshield wiper fluid in wintery weather, lock it in the trunk.

Windshield washer solution is poisonous to pets, too. If you spill it on the garage floor, be sure to clean it up right away.

If you suspect that someone has tasted or swallowed windshield wiper fluid, immediately use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. Both will tell you exactly what to do. The webPOISONCONTROL® online tool and the Poison specialists are available 24 hours a day, even during a snowstorm.

Robert Porter, BS, MPH, PharmD
Certified Specialist in Poison Information


References

Weiner S. Toxic alcohols. In: Nelson LS, Lewin NA, Howland MA, Hoffman RS, Goldfrank LR, Flomenbaum NE, editors. Goldfrank’s Toxicologic Emergencies. 9th ed. New York: McGraw Hill; 2011. p. 1400-10.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Do NOT transfer windshield washer solution into cups, bottles, or beverage containers.
  • Lock windshield washer solution out of sight and reach of children and pets.

This Really Happened

A 23-month-old child drank an unknown amount of windshield washer fluid that had been transferred to a cup. The product contained 68% methanol. The child was taken to the hospital and admitted. Her blood tests were abnormal. Also, she had a dangerous amount of methanol in her bloodstream. She was at risk for kidney failure, blindness, and death.

To prevent this, she was given an IV medicine called fomepizole. This would prevent her body from breaking down the methanol into more dangerous chemicals. Then, she was started on kidney dialysis to remove the methanol from her blood.

By the next day, most of the methanol in the child's bloodstream was gone. Her blood tests were normal again. Treatment was stopped. The child was sent home and made a full recovery.