Oct 29, 2012

Caffeine Is Not a Bioweapon

I got into a discussion with Yves Smith about caffeine here, and somehow my comment got eaten, so I'd like to finish it up here. She said about this Raw Story piece about a girl who allegedly died from drinking two Monster drinks in two days, "The FDA lapse here is terrible. Caffeine is extremely toxic. We just happen to get highly diluted doses in coffee and tea." I commented:
Yves, your implication about caffeine is incorrect on several levels. Most Monster drinks have about 10 mg of caffeine per fluid ounce, which is much less than even drip coffee (18 mg/oz) and WAY less than espresso (51 mg/oz). (Source)
The whole idea of dilution is misguided in any case. The relevant measurement for caffeine intoxication (and most poisoning generally) is the total amount taken, not the concentration. Concentration is something to worry about, as it can make a lethal dose easier to take on, but the main concern there is pure caffeine pills, not energy drinks which are mostly hype anyway.
The median lethal dose of caffeine according to Wikipedia is somewhere around 175 mg per kilogram of body mass. So the average girl with a body mass of around 50 kg would need to consume about 9 grams of caffeine in a short period to be killed. That’s about 55 cans of Monster. For an ordinary person, two cans should be completely harmless even if you shotgunned them back to back, let alone over a 24 hour period.
I think the lesson here is 1) don’t take stimulants of any kind if you have a heart arrhythmia and 2) take media reports about “new drugs that are killing today’s youth” with a gigantic grain of salt.
She responded:
480 MG in a day actually is a pretty high dose (roughly 5 cups of coffee), particularly if you DON’T regularly ingest lots of caffeine (you do develop some tolerance). It’s also not at all improbable that the guy who died got a higher dose. None of these drinks are regulated; in dietary supplement land, it’s common for the actual dosage to vary considerably for the advertised level (generally it’s lower but it can be higher; there was a famous case when I was in Oz of serious health problems resulting from the latter, and in Oz, they regulate those buggers to produce at pharma grade standards, so they at least caught it).
1. Caffeine is extremely toxic. I had a friend who was a PhD chemist with 12 patents to her name, who was slumming (she had moved to where her husband had gotten a job and needed the work) in the sort of lab where they were sent substances and she had to decompose them chemically. For some reason she didn’t explain, they had a pound of pure caffeine in the lab. She was completely freaked out about securing and handling it properly, because she said if someone just got a dusting on their fingertip and put the finger in their mouth, it would be enough to kill them. She estimated that her 1 lb of caffine, if put in a municipal water system, would kill 50,000 people.
2. It is not all that hard to overdo on caffeine. I’ve been hospitalized for caffeine intoxication when in college, that and when I got a concussion as a teenager were the only times I’ve been overnight in a hospital. I was perfectly healthy but if you drink enough coffee (which is how I did it, cramming for an exam) you can really screw yourself up. I got my blood pressure down to 70 over 40.
And here's my final response:
I don't see how I misrepresented your point. You implied that coffee had a lesser concentration ("highly diluted") compared to Monster, which is incorrect, it is actually the opposite. 
The 480 mg fatality quoted in the Raw Story piece was over two days, not one. It is a sizable dose (a bit more than a venti coffee at Starbucks), but again, not anywhere near enough to kill a normal person. The dead girl had a heart arrhythmia.
And your chemist friend is badly wrong about the toxicity of caffeine. Again, the LD50 for a normal-sized person is on the order of several grams, probably at least 10. Even if we're conservative and say five grams is guaranteed death, one pound could kill only about 90 people (454 grams per pound divided by 5) and then only if you spoon-fed it to them. If you dumped it into a municipal water system, it would quickly be diluted into the parts per million and wouldn't kill anyone--you'd be spreading 90 people's worth of lethal doses around hundred of thousands of showers and toilets.
In short, the idea that caffeine can be used as some kind of bioweapon is utterly preposterous, which is why you can buy pharmaceutical-grade pure caffeine online for cheap (I've seen people gulp down quarter-teaspoons of the stuff in water, to no ill effect). Even DHS would be able to notice a security hole like that.
I agree that caffeine can be overdone, especially for people without tolerance or with heart problems. I've done it myself with caffeine pills driving home from college at night. But that's no reason to scaremonger about a relatively harmless drug.

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