FDA Issues Warning on Pure Caffeine After Teen Overdose

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant found in coffee, tea, energy drinks, soda and various over-the-counter medications. As a thoroughly legal substance, caffeine has a benign reputation, and very few people think of it as a drug. But a drug it is, and a potentially hazardous one at that. Consumers are deceived into thinking caffeine poses no threat because it is ubiquitous and normally ingested in relatively small doses. As popular as liquids containing caffeine are, the typical American adult still only consumes about 300 milligrams of this substance on a daily basis, and the intake among children and adolescents is only about one-third that. Consequently, few people experience anything remotely resembling caffeine intoxication and have no idea how potent pure caffeine is. Medical authorities recommend that consumers limit their caffeine intake to no more than about 400 milligrams daily. But while the amount of caffeine allowed in liquids and medicines is limited to protect against accidental overdose, when caffeine is purchased in its pure, unadulterated form, no such restrictions apply. And thanks to the Internet, it is now possible to buy powdered caffeine in bulk for home delivery—legally, openly and without obstacle or complication. Pure caffeine has become popular with bodybuilders and other athletes looking to gain a competitive edge. While detailed data on the subject is scarce, it seems likely some are also buying it to use as an energy booster, or even as a way to get high. Amazingly, pure caffeine in powdered form is classified as a supplement and not as a drug and has not been subject to regulation. Swallowing one teaspoon of pure caffeine would be the equivalent of drinking 25 cups of coffee at once. Warning labels and dosage recommendations are usually included with these products, but because people assume the drug is safe, many are undoubtedly ignoring these guidelines, believing the risks of overdose to be minimal. But the opposite is true. When consumed to excess, caffeine can cause rapid and/or irregular heartbeat, diarrhea, vomiting, severe dizziness, disorientation, seizures and—in the most extreme instances—death.

Tragedy in Ohio

In May of this year, an 18-year-old LaGrange, Ohio, high school senior named Logan Stiner was found dead in his home after consuming a lethal dose of pure caffeine. The concentration of caffeine in his blood stream was sky high at 70 micrograms per milliliter, which is at least 20 times higher than what would be found in the blood of a typical coffee or soda drinker. Multiple bags of powdered caffeine were found among Logan’s possessions, and since he was a champion wrestler, it is believed he may have been using the drug as a training supplement. In response to this tragedy, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a Consumer Safety Alert, warning people to avoid taking caffeine in its pure, undiluted form. This statement is simply a recommendation and not a legally enforceable edict, but it represents the first step on a path that may lead to regulation or prohibition. The FDA has previously used its authority to ban potentially hazardous products containing caffeine, including caffeinated alcoholic beverages. For now, the FDA wants to make sure the word gets out about how dangerous pure caffeine products can be in the hope that future tragedies can be avoided.

Ignorance Can Kill

When taken in small quantities, caffeine does seem to be a relatively benign substance. But its effects on the body in any amount are disruptive to normal physiological functioning, and no one who consumes caffeine should have any illusions about its strength and potency. In high enough doses, caffeine will attack the central nervous system with ferocity, and it can cause heart failure in even the healthiest of bodies. Pure caffeine consumption has already claimed one young life, and other deaths could follow if people continue to treat this substance as a harmless supplement rather than a potentially deadly toxin.

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