Brain and Body

Just One Teaspoon of the World’s Favorite Legal Drug Is Enough to Kill You

May 4, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Coffee grounds and a rolled dollar bill, as if to be snorted like a drug
Photo credit: Daniele Devoti/flickr (CC by SA 2.0) Image has been cropped

The FDA is urged to take stronger action against concentrated caffeine products.

The world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug is caffeine — a cup of coffee to kick off the day is a norm for many of us.

However, most caffeine-consumers are likely unaware of the the dangers of pure caffeine, and at least two young people have died in the past two years from taking caffeine in its concentrated form.

Back in 2014, high-school student Logan Stiner died from cardiac arrhythmia and a seizure after taking powdered caffeine to boost his energy for high school finals, and Wade Sweatt, a young engineer, died after trying powdered caffeine since he didn’t like the taste of coffee and wanted to avoid sugary drinks.

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Both deaths could have been avoided if the public was aware of the dangers of powdered caffeine, which has sparked debate about concentrated caffeine regulation. Since a couple cups of coffee or an occasional soda is unlikely to lead to any long-term health problems for healthy adults, most people don’t see caffeine as a potentially deadly substance.

In its concentrated form, pure caffeine can come as either a powder or a liquid. Since products are often 100 percent pure, that means just one single teaspoon of concentrated caffeine could be equivalent to drinking 28 cups of coffee, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns.

In the wake of the deaths, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has been investigating concentrated caffeine products, and recently released a statement: “After only a quick Google search, we were able to order a small bottle of liquid caffeine from South Korea that contains an astonishing 9,000 milligrams of caffeine – enough to kill nearly seven people – and yet the label says only to use it 'sparingly.'"

CSPI is urging the FDA to ban all highly concentrated caffeinated products. The FDA sent a warning letter to five of the main distributors of powdered caffeine last year, but the CSPI says that’s not enough.

“A ban on such products would allow enforcement action against any company selling it—not just the five that received a warning letter,” the statement says.

“It would mean that such products could be seized by Customs at the border. It would also send a far clearer signal to the public about the risks,” CSPI continued. “Any action less than a ban would be confirmation that FDA has lost its way.”

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The CSPI isn’t the only group trying to push for action against concentrated caffeine products. In fact, The Hill reports that a group of senators and politicians wrote to the FDA on April 26 asking for stronger regulation.

"It is disturbing that despite two unintended and untimely deaths associated with powdered caffeine, the FDA has done little to regulate these products or adequately enforce the standards in place to protect Americans,” the letter said.

“These products do not provide a way to measure a safe dosage per FDA recommendations, and are sold in quantities that could easily kill hundreds of individuals if ingested incorrectly,” the lawmakers added.

College campuses have seen a significant rise in the number of students taking prescription ADHD medications for studying purposes, so it’s unsettling to think that people might opt for powdered caffeine instead, thinking it would be a safer alternative.

Hopefully we’ll see the FDA buckle down on concentrated caffeine products in the near future.

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