Upstate New York Poison Center: 65 Years Helping Keep People Safe

By Norah Machia

One of two centers in the state, the Syracuse operation serves 54 counties

When the Upstate New York Poison Center opened 65 years ago in Syracuse, the primary focus was to help children suffering from lead poisoning.

At the time, it was known as the Central New York Poison Center and it served 14 surrounding counties. The center operated as a “physician-to-physician” service to help doctors caring for children with high levels of lead detected in their bloodstreams, said T. Michele Caliva, Upstate New York Poison Center administrative director.

In those days, children could be exposed to lead-based paints and other dangerous substances that have since been taken off the market. Doctors in the community could contact a physician at the poison center if they needed help in managing treatments, said Caliva.

“At the beginning, there was a lot of pediatric focus,” she said. But as the center expanded, it also started to serve an increasing number of adults and senior citizens with a wider range of emergency poisoning and prevention calls.

In 2011, the center increased its coverage to 54 counties statewide. At the time, there had been five poison centers serving the entire state, but they were consolidated into two operations. The state’s other poison center is based in New York City and covers the five boroughs, Westchester County and Long Island.

Funding for the poison center is provided through the New York State Health Department and Upstate Medical University (the center is located on the campus).

There is no charge to call the poison center hotline at 1-800-222-1222. All information provided by the caller remains confidential.

The Upstate New York Poison Center handles more than 50,000 calls each year and is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It also serves as a site for medical student rotations.

“We take calls about anything that should not be in your body, on your skin, or in your eyes,” said Caliva.

Many of those calls are made by worried parents whose children have gotten into medications, personal care products or household cleaners. In some cases, the children have swallowed foreign objects such as coins or batteries.

The packaging of these types of products often attracts the attention of children, who can mistake them for food or candy, Caliva explained.

Callers don’t usually need to provide identifying information, although they may be asked to give a name and call back number if staff offer to check on a child being monitored at home. If the caller requests help for an ambulance transport, the staff can make those arrangements. The caller’s zip code is requested only for record-keeping purposes.

“We don’t share the caller’s information,” said Caliva. “We don’t want any parent or caregiver to be afraid to call us about an unintentional poisoning.”

The same advice goes for adults and senior citizens, who may feel embarrassed because they have, for example, taken the wrong dose of their medication.

A total of 16 registered nurses and pharmacists with specialized training in toxicology answer calls for the poison center. They determine if a person should be monitored at home, seen at a physician’s office or taken to an emergency department at a nearby hospital.

The poison center also has toxicologists and pharmacists with advanced training on call who may be consulted for a complicated poisoning emergency.

“There are layers of clinical expertise behind every call,” Caliva said.

Approximately 90% of calls for children aged 5 and younger, however, can be managed at home without a visit to a physician or hospital.

“The primary goal of every poison center is to reduce any serious illnesses or deaths that could result from an accidental poisoning,” said Caliva.

But there is also a focus on preventing unnecessary visits to the hospital, which could place a strain on the health care delivery system, particularly the emergency department staff and the ambulance services, she added. It’s also better for the parent and child not to risk unnecessary exposure to illness by going to a hospital if they don’t need emergency care.

Staff have recently seen an alarming increase in the number of calls for children who have ingested edible marijuana gummies and in those cases, hospitalization is required, said Caliva.

A bag of marijuana gummies left on a counter top is an open invitation for a young child to try them, she warned.

Accidental poisonings of these gummies, other medications and personal care products may be avoided if they are kept out of reach of young children. The poison center recommends lock boxes for all medications, particularly for senior citizens who have grandchildren visiting them in their homes. Children are natural explorers and have a strong curiosity to learn more about new things, so it’s best to keep anything harmful out of their sight, Caliva said.

Phone calls from adults often involve unintentional overdoses of prescription or non-prescription drugs. Sometimes a person has mistaken a medication for a personal care product, and it could just be a matter of not wearing reading glasses at the time.

The highly trained poison center staff also consults on calls from hospitals, nursing homes and private practices, along with 911 operators, school officials and industry representatives, said Caliva.

They may consult with a physician in an emergency department if a patient has intentionally taken an overdose of drugs, but it’s not clear what drugs were actually taken, she said. The center also receives calls about dangerous street drugs, such as fentanyl, and handles calls about exposures to hazardous chemicals or materials.

The Upstate New York Poison Control Center has management staff employed throughout the state as well, along with public educators who speak to community groups, schools and organizations about a variety of poison prevention topics.

For more information on the center, visit:

Top five poisonings for children aged 5 and younger

1. Personal care products (hand sanitizers, etc.)

2. Household cleaning substances (bleach, laundry pods, etc.)

3. Analgesics (children’s liquid acetaminophen)

4. Foreign objects (toys, silica gel, glow sticks, etc.)

5. Dietary supplements/herbals (melatonin, etc.)


Top five poisonings for adults aged 20 and older

1. Analgesics (adult strength acetaminophen and ibuprofen)

2. Sedative/hypnotics/antipsychotics (benzodiazepines, etc.)

3. Antidepressants

4. Cardiovascular drugs

5. Household cleaning products (bleach, etc.)