Caffeine Kills

caffeine_sucks.jpg What is the lethal level of caffeine consumption? Apparently, it's somewhere below "spoonfuls" of a caffeine supplement that a British man purchased over the Internet. Papers around the world are abuzz (sorry) about the death-by-stimulant of Michael Lee Bedford. The recommended dose on the packet is 1/16th of a teaspoon--I know I have my 1/16th teaspoon measure handy at all times--and he took substantially more. The accounts of the coroner's inquest say his consumption was 70 times the amount found in an energy drink. He even washed down the caffeine powder with an energy drink. He became ill nearly immediately, and died shortly afterwards. Add this to a report in my state of Washington of a party in Roslyn October 9th, when a dozen mostly college students were sent to the hospital with what appeared to be poisoning. The suspicion initially was that someone had slipped roofies or the equivalent into the alcohol. A few days ago, however, the toxicology reports came back and pinned the blame on Four Loko, a caffeine-enhanced malt liquor with 12-percent alcohol. The caffeine apparently masks the effects of the liquor packed into a 23.5-ounce container. It and similar beverages, some sold by major brewers, are nicknamed "blackout in a can," and try to leverage the way in which some people binge drink by following alcohol with Red Bull. I'm starting to develop a list of things that were either unavailable when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, or I was simply too naive to be aware, that I now need to be sure my kids are aware of. When I grew up, making most stupid mistakes with commonly available products didn't lead readily to death. Unless I really was naive. Image via Creative Commons from Bryan Gosline.


      1. Little known fact: Combined, lawn darts and Pop Rocks killed more Midwestern youths between 1968 and 1984 than they didn’t. Littler known fact, bowl cuts became popular out of the belief that such a ‘do would help deflect the errant lawn dart.

        1. But it was so much fun to feed poprocks to those midwestern kids, watch em blow up real good.

  1. When I grew up, making most stupid mistakes with commonly available products didn’t lead readily to death. Unless I really was naive.

    Bleach, Draino, etc. all existed in the 70’s. So I’m pretty sure it’s not naivety, but rather the opposite.

    1. Right, but then Draino and bleach weren’t sold in the beverage aisle of the grocery store. Unless there used to be cherry-flavoured draino in a handy 12 oz can that you can’t get anymore because of some stupid spoilsport safety regs…

      1. Powdered caffeine isn’t available in the supermarket either. I mean sure, you can get NoDoz, but it has instructions about how much to take.

        And yes, Draino actually has instructions as to how much to take (zero!), and what to do if you exceed that.

  2. Current college student speaking: Four Loko is so effing bad for you that even binge drinkers can figure out they shouldn’t touch it. I know some kids- and I’m talking hardcore alcoholic frat boys- who’ve been on the wagon for months because of Four Loko. The stories I could tell you about it are disturbing, too.

    Stay far, far away.

    1. Drinking a beverage that’s 2-3x the strength of an average beer as though it were a soda is always a recipe for disaster. In my college days, the culprits were Cisco (ugh) and St. Ides ‘Special Brew’ (fruity flavored malt liquor, ‘for the ladies’: double-ugh).

      Cisco is still around (unfortunately), but the St. Ides has probably long-since evaporated. At the time, though, it was heavily promoted by a ton of popular rap stars of the day.

  3. I worked in a drive thru coffee joint when i was younger, and on one occasion consumed 11 double shots of espresso in 2 hours.

    don’t worry – i didn’t die – but it was not pleasant.

  4. I know even not much more than a couple cups’ worth of caffeine gives me jitters and an unpleasant empty feeling all through my body, and it’s not at all fun. I can’t imagine how much worse it must be for someone who just took a lethal dose.

  5. “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy.” – Paracelsus (1493-1541)

  6. A friend of mine spent all afternoon and evening one day talking with friends, while drinking coffee after coffee. His heart started racing, and he went to the hospital. The doctor told him that had he not done so, he likely would have died.

  7. Generally 3 grams of caffeine or more is considered lethal (Google it).

    Ingested 1.5g in pill form one night, thought I was going to die.

    That was the night that I learned how to research drugs and find correct dosage levels.

    1. And thus, you can post today.

      Ignorance and contaminants and uncertain strength kills. Most people learn to be adequate autopharmacists.

      That is why legalization is important.

  8. Weird that the amount of caffeine in this Four Loko stuff doesn’t seem to be labeled on the can (at least, googling for the amount comes up with a bunch of references to “unknown amounts of caffeine”). Wouldn’t that be the kind of thing you’d have to disclose?

    By my reading of the Four Loko case, it wasn’t the caffeine that was the real dangerous thing, but the level of blood alcohol the drinkers managed to reach, presumably thanks to the caffeine keeping them from passing out.

    Even so, getting to that level of blood alcohol on a 12% ABV drink is kind of heroic – that’s like getting potentially lethal alcohol poisoning from drinking wine. Wouldn’t your stomach rebel first?

  9. 11 shots is enough to get you really awake but not kill you unless you have unknown health issues that the caffeine would exacerbate.

    After once looking up the ld50 of caffeine with some friends we realized that coffee, espresso, coke, and the other normal (non energy drink/jolt cola/etc) methods of ingestion it would be close to impossible to drink enough in one go to kill yourself.

    I had a friend who seemed unaffected by the stuff, one evening at our late night get together at a coffee house he went through 22 shots and didn’t seem fazed.

    1. The question once came up: could you drink 100 cups of coffee in a day. I was curious, so did a bit of research and calculations. The answer is: it depends.

      100 cups of your average coffee has more than the ld50 for the average male. Body mass does matter, so that would help a few. But at first glance, more than half of men would die. Even more women would keel over (lower body mass means more mg/kg).

      Metabolism is the key. If you space your drinking out over 24 hours, dosage drops to well below ld50 for men. Some might die, but that would be the price of science.

      Even more interesting, women would not drop below ld50. It seems women clear caffeine from their system half as fast as men. So the dose/kg would reach much higher than men.

      But that’s not all! Women on the pill metabolize caffeine half as fast as women not on the pill. Most of them are going to die.

      So my advice is: if you are a petite woman on the pill, do not drink 100 cups of coffee in a day.

  10. I didn’t realize you could buy caffeine laced booze here in the states. In toronto I used to drink Rev, which sounds similar to four loco. I wouldn’t recommend binging on it, but in moderation I rather enjoyed it.

    . . . now that I look at the numbers, I see that four loko is almost twice as strong as a Rev.

    Actually, 24oz at 12% alcohol means that drinking a single four loko would be equivalent to consuming an entire bottle of wine. That really seems like the kind of thing you’d want to drink with a friend, and a lot of water.

    1. Actually, 24oz at 12% alcohol means that drinking a single four loko would be equivalent to consuming an entire bottle of wine.

      …or approx. a sixpack of light beer. I’m sure a frat guy could pound a couple of those tallboys in a matter of minutes, and well, he’d be in for a wild ride, to say the least.

  11. When I grew up, making most stupid mistakes with commonly available products didn’t lead readily to death.

    Fireworks and General Motors?

  12. While the list is a good idea, it will always be out of date. Better instead, I think, to inculcate in your children the ability for critical thinking. Or, at least, do both.

  13. My roommate in college did a paper on caffeine overdosing. A couple of people have actually died from overdose as a result of coffee enemas.

  14. Drano didn’t have a child-proof cap until sometime in the 70s. A sib-in-law managed to drink some as a child.

  15. Even so, getting to that level of blood alcohol on a 12% ABV drink is kind of heroic – that’s like getting potentially lethal alcohol poisoning from drinking wine. Wouldn’t your stomach rebel first?

    Just a quick bit of math.

    1 1.5 oz shot of 80-proof liquor = 5-6 oz of 12% ABV drink like wine

    I can barely stand at 12 shots. That’s 60-72 oz of wine or about 2 liters.

    That’s a lot, but not impossible. I’ve certainly drank that much wine (and seriously regretted it later).

  16. Before Four Loko there was Rum and Coke (aka Cuba Libre) and Irish Coffee.

    The Central Washington University story is as follows: in early October, 12 college freshmen drank themselves sick. I’m not sure why this qualifies as news.

    This is just your usual moral panic.

  17. I used to drink copious amounts of diet coke, enough to keep a pretty steady caffeine buzz during the day. I decided to kick the habit, going with caffeine free soda, and outside of a headache and some queasiness in the first day or so I was fine. I edged off the caffeine free stuff easily a month or so later, no harm, no foul.

    In the couple years since though, I’ve become really sensitive to caffeine. To the point that even one can of diet coke would have me kind of feeling twitchy.

    I never got into coffee or, god forbid, energy drinks. The notion of playing test pilot with my nervous system never appealed to me.

  18. An approach to prevent accidental overdoses would be to make sure you can’t buy a lethal dose of anything in any one transaction.

    e.g. as a shopper on the highstreet, Tescos Sainsburys, etc. limit you to buying about 8g of paracetamol per transaction, so even if you somehow didn’t realise that taking a whole packet in one sitting was dangerous, you’d likely survive.

    The toxicity of caffeine is fairly low, e.g. the ratio of minimum effective dose to maximum safe dose is x50 or more. You’d have to be pretty reckless to overdose on caffeine.

  19. the real danger of mixing energy drinks and alcohol is dehydration. So, drink a pint of water with that Vodka Redbull and you’ll be fine.

  20. I used to drink quite a lot of coffee while living in Italy: one espresso in the morning, one after lunch, plus another one or two throughout the day. Never had any problem.

    Then I moved to England, and somehow failed to spot that most coffee chains and vending machines would put twice the amount of caffeine I was used to, in each coffee, by default.

    By the second year, I was badly addicted. By the third, my heart would suddenly start racing for no good reason, even at night. I went cold turkey, got better, and now I’m very careful with my caffeine intake.

  21. Seems that with each new batch of kids, there are always the one or two thrill-seekers who are willing to give jimson weed a try. Please don’t let it be your kids.

  22. “When I grew up, making most stupid mistakes with commonly available products didn’t lead readily to death.”

    You’re not so old that you didn’t have access to cars, guns and booze when you were a kid.

    1. Excellent point. I was thinking about products that I had access to as a kid in my home. Here’s why I’m naive.

      My parents may have left their car keys around, but I would never have thought (at the age of up to say, 15) of driving the car without having a license. (My brother did, however…)

      My parents didn’t drink, not for any particular reason, so there was little to no alcohol in the house. My parents abhorred guns and violence; we had no guns.

      I apparently led a sheltered life! But we also didn’t have mainstream knowledge and spreading of strangulation “games,” pure caffeine in a packet, and so forth.

    2. Nobody is so old that they didn’t have access to booze as a kid. It goes up if you’re older than a hundred years or so.

  23. You can just look this stuff up. Google caffeine MSDS . The LD50 of caffeine is 192 mg/kg (RAT). The average weight of a human is ~80 kg, and assuming equivalance you’re at about 15g of caffeine (13g published elsewhere for humans) to kill half the people that ingest it. One of those strong drip Ventis (20oz) will have about 485mg, so 25 – 30 of those babies will kill you 50% of the time.

    Good to know!

    Back in the day, Ralph Nader was complaining about Plutonium being very toxic and a small amount could kill everyone on earth, blah blah blah. He was assuming it all vaporized and was then handed out dose by dose to every person, which seems a little aggressively overstating the claim. Bernie Cohen challenged him to an eating contest: Bernie eating Pu, Ralph eating caffeine–we’ll see who dies first.

  24. I have bought pure powdered caffeine before. The 1/16th tsp is a stupid measurement, because, as the OP points out, nobody has a 1/16th tsp measuring spoon. It’s just trying to approximate 100 mg IIRC, but they assume most average humans won’t have a scale that can measure in mg.

    You can fucking kill yourself with this shit. If you’re going to buy pure powdered psychoactive chemicals, don’t fuck around.

    My method of dosing and ingestion is to measure out, say, 500 mg, and then dissolve it into a quantity of water such that I achieve a known concentration. My current target concentration is about 15 mg of caffeiene per tsp of water. That way I can easily dose out precise amounts of caffeine with a normal measuring spoon.

    Suffice it to say that if anyone was to drink that water, they would be very sad, so labeling and preventing children from getting a hold of it are essential.

    1. nobody has a 1/16th tsp measuring spoon

      I do! :-)

      You can get your own here.

      Or just Google ‘Dash Pinch Smidgen’. And remember, as with all precision applications of household measuring implements, be sure to check for accuracy before using. :-)

  25. LD50 for caffeine is estimated to roughly 150-200 mg/kg body weight. Something that is hard or impossible to achieve drinking coffee, but easy using pure caffeine.

      1. I’ve also done such calculations some years ago for fun. You have to remember that LD50 is the border between death likely – and death unlikely. There is some much lower dosage that is always safe, then by increasing dose the possibility of death raises above 0% until LD50 and beyond until everyone dies for sure. It just takes a few espressos to enter the danger of caffeine intoxication, which to some individual perhaps with a heart condition could mean death while others might just have a rough time.

    1. Well, not exactly easy. At 200 mg/kg for a 50 kg (110lb) person, it would still require you to eat 20 grams of caffeine. That’s not an amount that anyone will accidentally swallow.

      1. In fact it’s 10g. Or 50 200mg pills. But that’s the high end of the estimated dose and you also risk death at a lower dose. This kid died from 25 pills.

        1. i will hazard a guess that the dose needed depends on how much caffeine one have been exposed to over the years, and other factors.

          This just like how a heavy drinker can survive dosage that would normally be lethal.

          1. Well, maybe the tolerance is higher but even a heavy drinker dies from drinking 20 times their normal intake. Even 2 grams usually requires hospital care. I don’t think you can increase the tolerance by more than a few 100 mg, and this also puts you in risk for caffeinism. Like the chronic headaches you get from overuse of pain killers.

  26. I’d be careful not to view the past with rose coloured glasses. I too grew up in the 70’s and early 80’s. I remember all the head shops in my neighborhood. They sold all kinds of quasi-legal stuff, like poppers. Since I was a pretty straight kid I’m not sure exactly what all else they had, but I am sure that if I had been the sort of person to chug malt liquor 40’s laced with caffeine I would have investigated. In short, I imagine that there has always been a grey market designed to get you f-ed up, if you were so inclined.

  27. Having actually had a caffeine overdose (I didn’t die from it obviously), I can tell you that it is quite unpleasant. It is also rather difficult to have, unless your idea of a good time is swallowing a bunch of no-doz and washing it down with jolt. There are products on the market with lots of caffeine, mind you, but most of them are covered in warnings. In many cases (for instance, Five Hour Energy and the associated clones/spinoffs) although it is very unpleasant and potentially dangerous to have more than one within a period of maybe seven hours (and it’s recommended to have only one per twenty four), it’s not the caffeine that gets you.

  28. someone died ban EVERYTHING! why cant we just put warning labels on things and let adults decide for themselves? oh wait because some are idiots? thats still not a good reason to deprive others of using certain items that have legitimate use even those that may appear to be harmful at first. This ban everything logic is the reason you cant buy good chemistry sets or buy certain science related toys and or items.

  29. If you consume 70x the effective dose (Ed) of anything except
    cannabis you will die. Except psychedelics.

    Five times the Ed of tylenol and no new liver you die.

    You might have a lethal dose of ethanol or nicotine in your house right now.

    Vote yes on 19.

  30. Back in the day you could get prescription diet pills by going to a doctor and asking or diet pills. We quickly realized that a couple of diet pills seems to negate the affects of alcohol.I’m sure the reality is that we just felt sober but were actually as impaired as ever. Interesting that 45 years later this is still going on. What we won’t do for the perfect high.

    1. Hmm, i am reminded about a book on coffee that claims that the creative explosion of the enlightenment came about thanks to the introduction of coffee as a alternative to beer. While beer would make one tried and uninterested, coffee would make on energetic and creative. It made the claim that some of the great thinkers of the era would spend countless hours at the local coffee house, discussing various topics while drinking large amounts of coffee.

      1. So what we enshrine as rational thought is really just the ramblings of a bunch of speed freaks. That sounds about right.

        1. At least it seems to have turned out better then the “can’t be bothered” masses of beer drinkers that came before them.

  31. Caffine is bad for you, but then we already knew what it leads to:
    Le Cafe (YT, anim, Fr lang)
    S. Marguerite & E. Tarascou 2007
    Ecole des Métiers du Cinéma d’Animation (EMCA)

    Or here’s a much louder low res copy, with subtitles:

    Music: Oldelaf & Mr D

  32. This is a sad day as anhydrous caffeine is extremely useful:

    Since the likely result of this event will be an effective ban I’d like to point out to gardeners out there that 100 mg / L H20 makes a VERY effective spot treatment for insect control where soap or neem oil fails. We grow a large amount of pumpkins and invariably the stink bugs rapidly outpace even our prolific number of spiders, birds, and praying mantis. So far this is the only control I’ve found that is food safe and water soluble. It also works wonders for scale insects and mites on fruit trees instead of using expensive plant safe oil. I’ve yet to encounter any phototoxic effects that are often seen with neem applications.

  33. In the mid to late 90’s I used to sell 10 gram vials on my website. Something tells me I’m glad I don’t still do that. We also gave away thousands of 1 gram packets of the stuff at Defcon on a couple different years. And at least a couple of Mondo staffers carried vials with them.

    In 97 or 98 I was on my way out on a bus to attend the first Slamdance with the cast of Cannibal the Musical. Instead of my normal 10 gram supply, I decided to carry a much larger vial. My normal mode of operation at the time was to fill up about half a cap full and down it. Well, in my sleep deprived state I didn’t quite realize that the cap was much larger than usual containers. I realized it just in time to almost choke on the bitter powder. The smart thing to do would have been to just spit it out in the bus. Instead, like an idiot, I swallowed it. The next four or five hours of my life were miserable. But after that I was fine, with no lingering symptoms.

    Stewart Lee Adam, the author of The Devil’s Cup also bought a vial from me at some point. In his book, he tells a story of getting pulled over carrying the vial of white powder in Arkansas. In the story, he questions himself on the side of the road on what I might have sold him. And rather or not it could be an illegal narcotic. In the end, the troopers simply made him dump it out on the side of the road since their tests didn’t show anything.

  34. I used to buy bottles of 50 100mg caffeine pills and take 1/4 of a pill at a time so I’d use LESS caffeine than if I drank coffee. The last time I tried to buy a bottle the pharmacy workers said they couldn’t sell it any more because of new regulations requiring that the total amount in the package be less than a lethal dose.

    So maybe such an accident couldn’t happen here as easily.

  35. I’ve definitely spent my time with some serious drunkards and debased indviduals and I’ve never seen anybody go for more then two of those bastards, just doesn’t work. We also call that shit Quatro Crazy which IMHO is a waaaaaay better then Four Loko.

  36. In one of my clinical rotations, I worked at a pediatric hospital. One night a 14 yr old boy came in – unresponsive. He reportedly downed 2 1/2 “Loco” caffeine-laced alcoholic drinks at a party. An hour later he was starting to have seizures. Either he had some latent problem the Loco brought out and/or the drink itself was screwing with his immature neuro system. They tried to put him in a MRI to find out more, and halfway through the scan he seized again badly and was rushed back onto the floor. When I left there, he was still in the hospital, still not-quite-right. Eventually he’ll probably recover. But who wants to spend a week in the hospital because of having a few drinks?

    So, yes, a strong dose of caffeine plus alcohol can really screw a person up. Why we think caffeine is this harmless pick-me-up is beyond me. It’s a stimulant. And like any drug, too much of it isn’t good for you.

    1. Guarana and taurine are more suspect of epileptic seizures than caffeine., wikipedia
      Not to mention binge drinking children should be condemned with or without caffeine.

      People, like me have drunk Cuba libre or Carajillo/Corretto/Irish coffee for ages without problems.

    2. My guess, because a cup of coffee is no big issue (and the west have been drinking it for ages). Basically it becomes something like coca leaves. In its natural form is mild, but distilled you got cocaine.

  37. I’ve been wondering how many shots of coffee Starbucks would sell in a latte. I asked in my local shop in Glasgow this week and they said if you ask for 7 or more they would advise choosing another drink,but wouldn’t actually refuse any number on health grounds.

  38. A friend of mine once spilled a significant amount of powdered caffeine on herself while preparing a very large batch of Open Cola. The resulting caffeine overdose through skin absorption was very unpleasant.

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