2017 was a wild year for all of us. One special example of this is the phenomenon that swept the internet around December, called the ‘Tide Pod Challenge’. This was a meme which spread, particularly around teenagers, who, to various degrees, competed to ingest laundry detergent pods.

Now, under no circumstances would we recommend, nor condone this behaviour. However, from an evolutionary biology perspective, it’s interesting to think about. Apart from the obvious allure of the meme, and subsequent internet fame, would people eat these detergent pods?

In the United State of America, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has declared these pods to be a risk to children and those suffering from any form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The bright colours, softness, density, and shape of these pods make them appealing to children, who tend to figure out the world by experimental eating. So appealing, in fact, that a warning must be placed on the packaging of these pods, and measures to “child-lock” the boxes have been taken by many companies. Even now, as I look at the Aldi detergent pods which sit in my press, I can see that one side of the box bears a clear warning about ingestion, and instructions to keep the box out of reach of children.

You can see why these pods may entice a child, in our world where bright colours and softness often mean ‘intended for kids’, and childsafe locks so often mean, ‘but mam doesn’t want you to have it’.

It is a little different when it comes to the other population that is noted to eat detergent pods – adults with dementia. A CBC news article details the death of an elderly man with dementia, after he wandered from his room in the care facility he resided in, and ingested multiple detergent pods. Another from NBC News details a similar story. These are just the top two results from a quick google search, and they are indicative of a wider problem.  As with children, the appearance and the “squishy texture” of the pods may indicate that they are edible to patients with limited knowledge and/or cognitive ability, as is the case in dementia. Cognitive decline means that the patient’s rational thinking skills are affected, and there may be a lot of confusion. A decline of perceptual-motor/visuospatial function can cause confusion when using familiar tools/appliances. What’s more, those living with Alzheimer’s tend to lose semantic knowledge. While any of us might forget where we put our keys, people with Alzheimer’s may forget what a key is. This can apply to detergent pods too. Patients can become confused about their surroundings, forget the use of these pods, and suppose from the appearance, that they are edible.

Whilst memes can be fun, the Tide Pod challenge is an incredible example of prefrontal lobe under-development in adolescence. Eating detergent is a bad idea. Cleaning chemicals will not distinguish between the proteins in clothes stains which it was designed to break down, and the proteins which make up the human tongue. Take precautions to ensure that any vulnerable individuals in your life can not accidentally eat detergent pods. Don’t eat detergent pods. We can’t believe we have to say this.

Danielle O’Rourke – Science Writer