Killer Caffeine

© : Santi Sinsawad | 123RF.com

© : Santi Sinsawad | 123RF.com

I knew of a woman who had a dual addiction to marijuana and caffeine. Yes, caffeine. She drank several pots of coffee throughout the day along with smoking marijuana. While a resident in a long-term rehab for women, she repeatedly denied that she had caffeinated coffee. But the staff “knew” she was somehow getting it and using it because of the coffee stains on the rug in her room. Several room searches were done to no avail. Finally she was busted. What the woman had done was smuggle a Melita filter and caffeinated coffee into the facility when she out for an appointment. In all the years I’ve worked with substance use/abuse disorders, this was the only time I’d ever seen such classic addictive behaviors with caffeine.

The last several years have seen the marketing of energy drinks with high caffeine content, and the use of products like 5-hour ENERGY “shots.” Many of the individuals I meet in early recovery are drawn to energy drinks, so I’ve been watching for news and research on them. I’ve heard of some concerns about their safety. And recently I heard about powdered caffeine. Just one teaspoon contains 3,200 mg of caffeine.

So let’s start with some basic information about caffeine before we get to the reported deaths from using caffeine powder. According to Wikipedia, caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug. It is legal and unregulated in most countries worldwide. In North America, 90% of adults consume caffeine daily. I am one of them. A seven-ounce cup of coffee contains 80 to 175 mg of caffeine, depending upon how it is prepared (drip, percolation or espresso). Toxic doses of caffeine for an adult are over 10 grams—twenty times higher than the average consumption of 500 mg per day.

Caffeine’s positive effects have to do with reducing fatigue and preventing drowsiness. It can even stimulate faster and clearer thought flow, increased focus and better general body coordination. Consistent with this last effect, moderate doses of caffeine can improve athletic performance, but the improvements are not usually substantial. There can be some undesired effects, such as mild anxiety, insomnia, and jitteriness. Although there are caffeine-induced disorders in the DSM-5, caffeine use is usually not considered to be addictive.

Caffeinism can occur when 400 to 500 mg at one time, or 1,000 to 1,500 mg per day or more of caffeine is consumed. Winston et al. noted that the symptoms that occur (restlessness, agitation, excitement, rambling thought and speech, and insomnia) overlap with those of several psychiatric disorders. Extreme overdose can result in death. The estimated lethal dose in humans is estimated to be equivalent to 150 to 200 milligrams per kilogram of body mass; the caffeine in roughly 80 to 100 cups of coffee for an average adult. You can read further about caffeine in a 1981 article, “Caffeine: Psychological Effects, Use and Abuse.” As always with psychoactive substances, you can also see what Erowid has to say about caffeine.

Now, let’s look at caffeine powder. In May of 2014, 18-year-old Logan Stiner died after ingesting 23 times the amount of caffeine found in a typical cup of coffee. Given the above noted information, Logan would have consumed 1,850 to 4,025 mg of caffeine.  While the estimated lethal dose given above would seem to be higher than Logan’s intake of caffeine powder, he still clearly consumed roughly four to eight times the dose needed for caffeinism. Several reports have indicated that a teaspoon of caffeine powder, the equivalent of 25 cups of coffee, can be lethal. Logan’s use of caffeine powder did approach that level. Caffeine powder is a pure chemical. And as Mary Clare Jalonick reported:  “the difference between a safe amount and a lethal dose is very small.”

The FDA has warned against the use of powered pure caffeine. They are particularly concerned about Internet sales of bulk bags of it. “Pure caffeine is a powerful stimulant and very small amounts may cause accidental overdose. Parents should be aware that these products may be attractive to young people.” Michael Landa, the Director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, reported having a December 2014 meeting with Logan’s parents and the parents of a 24-year-old who died after ingesting powdered caffeine. He said:

I cannot say strongly enough how important it is to avoid using powdered pure caffeine. The people most drawn to it are our children, teenagers, and young adults, especially students who want to work longer to study, athletes who want to improve their performance, and others who want to lose weight.

The FDA doesn’t have the legal authority to just pull these products off the shelf. Caffeine powder is sold as an unregulated dietary supplement—unlike caffeine added to soda and other drink products. This is a common way of getting around regulation with several other potentially harmful psychoactive substances (see Krypton Can Kill You; Kava is not a Magic Bullet).

Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner of foods, said it was inherently irresponsible to market such a potentially dangerous product. “I would hope that people would get the message that they just ought to stop selling it.” So far, they don’t seem to be getting that message.

David Templeton, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, reported that six senators have sent a letter to the FDA urging them to ban the retail sale of caffeine powder. The letter stated that pure caffeine is unsafe. Overdosing is easy and virtually unavoidable. Powered caffeine sold in bulk was said to be markedly different than other caffeine products, on the market, such as energy drinks, energy shots and others. “Because of the risk powdered caffeine poses to consumers, these products merit swift and significant action by the FDA.” The Council of Responsible Nutrition, a trade association for the supplement industry, recently stated their support for an FDA ban against the retail sale of caffeine powder. NutraKey, a major online marketer of caffeine powder did not respond to requests for comment.