Would you pound 25 cups of coffee back to back just to get amped up for the day, curb your appetite or power you through an all-nighter? Youths and adults are getting the equivalent buzz from pure powdered caffeine, and as little as one teaspoon can be fatal.
Federal health officials have now issued warnings about the dangers of the unregulated pure caffeine, an inexpensive product that kids can easily find online.
In the wake of a teenage athlete fatally overdosing on 100 percent caffeine, the Food and Drug Administration has urged users to take extreme care with the drug, flagged parents about its appeal to youth and may begin regulating it.
“The difference between a safe amount and a lethal dose of caffeine in these powdered products is very small,” FDA spokeswoman Jennifer Dooren told the Associated Press.
The scale of the problem is significant. Millions of people rely on coffee and caffeinated energy drinks just to get through the day. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that ER visits linked to caffeinated energy drinks doubled from 2007 to 2011. The primary victims are teenagers and young adults.
“It could cost so much for their still-growing bodies that I’m really concerned,” said Joni Ogle, LCSW, CSAT, director of young adult programs at Promises in Mar Vista, Calif. “We have so many young adults who struggle with paying attention that they might abuse the powdered caffeine.”
While it may have been pitched as an energy booster that will power people through finals or a heavy workout, powdered caffeine appears to be emerging as a go-to for weight loss. That has alarmed physicians, who are reporting an uptick in teen patients with complications.
There are no standard kitchen measuring tools for as little as 1/16th of a teaspoon, which may have about 200 milligrams of caffeine — equal to two big mugs of robust coffee. So a mere teaspoonful could be lethal, Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency room doctor at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital, told the AP.
He said the users are mostly young people and he’s seen several in recent months, some of whom arrive with a rapid heart rate, one of the signs of caffeine overdose.
Related: What to Do After an Overdose
“They’re starting to latch on to the powders more,” Glatter added, “because they see it as a more potent way to lose weight.”
Concerns about the powerful stimulant are not new. But they’ve gone high profile since the death of Logan Stiner, 18, of Ohio. A popular student chosen prom king at his high school, Logan was also a wrestler. His parents did not know he was taking powdered caffeine before his death May 27.
“I don’t think any of us really knew that this stuff was out there,” Jay Arbaugh, superintendent of the Keystone Local Schools in Ohio, told the local media.
The county coroner told reporters that the senior just days from graduating high school had well over 70 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter of blood in his system, more than 23 times that of the average coffee drinker.
Caffeine powder can be found at all sorts of online storefronts. Because it is listed as a dietary supplement, it does not fall under the same government guidelines as do energy drinks and other caffeinated food products.
But that may change. The FDA told news agencies that it may consider regulating the potentially lethal substance.
“Pure caffeine is a powerful stimulant and very small amounts may cause accidental overdose,” the FDA announced on its website. “Parents should be aware that these products may be attractive to young people.”
According to the FDA, symptoms of caffeine overdose include a rapid or dangerously erratic heartbeat and seizures. Vomiting, diarrhea, stupor and disorientation are also signs of caffeine toxicity.
Some fans online say they add caffeine to their already-caffeinated Mountain Dew. Others say they mask the bitter flavor of the powdered caffeine in their morning fruit smoothie.
Ogle said none of her clients had heard of the stimulant, “which I was actually pleased to hear,” she said. “But we did talk about it, and we came up with the following fears: that like any powdered substance, people will snort it, shoot it and smoke it. We also talked about how they abused energy drinks to get a high and how much easier powder will be and how much more dangerous.”
Public safety officials cheered the FDA’s warning but called for more action. Consumer advocate Jim O’Hara of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told another AP reporter in Washington that the FDA needs to more aggressively take steps to remove powdered caffeine from the open market.
“The overuse and misuse of caffeine in the food supply is creating a Wild West marketplace,” O’Hara said, “and it’s about time the sheriff noticed and did something.”