Nov. 3, 2010 -- A 23-year-old British man died from what the coroner said was a dangerous dose of caffeine, according to British media reports.
Information from the coroner's inquest revealed that Michael Lee Bedford ingested two spoonfuls of pure caffeine powder that he washed down with an energy drink. Coroner Dr. Nigel Chapman said the dose Bedford consumed was equivalent to 70 cans of Red Bull.
"This should serve as a warning that caffeine is so freely available on the Internet but so lethal if the wrong dosage is taken," Chapman said at the inquest.
A warning label on the product said only one-sixteenth of a teaspoon should be taken, but Bedford far exceeded that amount.
"He wasn't doing anything wrong, it was just the danger of the dose he took," said Chapman.
Though toxicologists in the U.S. say they're not aware of any cases of people overdosing on caffeine powder, they say that caffeine overdoses are on the rise thanks in large part to the wide availability of caffeine-loaded energy drinks. They believe that increased consumption of these drinks can lead to caffeine abuse, which can lead to significant illness, injury and even death.
"It's already a big problem," said Bruce Goldberger, professor and director of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine. "we're a chemical-based society, because so many of us rely on psychotropic drugs to get by every day."
"We're seeing a lot more of it, and one of the reasons is, it's difficult to figure out how much stimulant is in some of these products," said Dr. Robert Hendrickson, medical toxicologist and emergency physician at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.
Hendrickson explained that there may be other ingredients in many energy drinks and supplements, such as taurine and guarana, that also have caffeine in them, but there's no indication of how much caffeine they contain.
Experts say there's been a rise in the number of caffeine-related illnesses because more and more people are taking caffeine for a variety of reasons.
"Students are using it for studying, people are using it to try and stay awake and participate in late night social activities," said Dr. Richard Clark, director of medical toxicology at UCSD Medical Center in San Diego, Calif.
Difficult to Determine How Much is Too Much
Medical experts agree that the amount of caffeine that led to Bedford's death is clearly fatal, and they can only speculate about why someone would choose to ingest that much caffeine.
"It's a stimulant, so if you're looking for a stimulant high, caffeine is perceived to be a lot safer," said Hendrickson.
They aren't sure how much caffeine is considered life-threatening, although they say there are ways to tell when you've reached the caffeine breaking point.
"[You can also] develop a tremor and feel restless," Clark added.
When people start to experience these symptoms, it's a sure sign they've had too much caffeine. With extremely high doses, people may start to experience a rapid and irregular heart beat and may eventually have seizures. Death can occur within hours.
"In a life-threatening situation, it's not unlike the effects of other well-known stimulants like cocaine and amphetamine," said Goldberger.
Despite the dangers of very high doses of caffeine, studies have shown that caffeine can offer some benefits in small doses.
"A small amount can increase concentration and boost athletic performance, but a lot of caffeine decreases concentration and performance," said Hendrickson.
While it varies from person to person, Hendrickson said a safe amount is between 150 and 250 milligrams -- roughly equivalent to an average-sized cup of regular coffee.
"More than 250 milligrams is that amount that studies have shown concentration to go down," he said.
Exercise Caution With Energy Drinks and Supplements
Experts say not much is known about the effects of high doses, such as the amount of caffeine that's in many energy drinks.
"Studies on low doses show there's not a very dangerous effect, but these drinks have much higher doses, and we don't have data yet about what it's doing to our bodies," said Clark.
Because so little is known about these caffeine-loaded drinks and because they're so widely available, medical experts urge caution when consuming them.
"You have to know how your body is going to respond to them, so drink one and see how your body reacts," said Hendrickson.
Even if a person suffers no ill effects from consuming an energy drink, experts advise they should not be consumed regularly or over a long period of time because of all the unknowns.
They also urge people to consume any caffeinated foods and drinks in moderation.
"There is no recommended amount, so the key is to know your body and how caffeine affects it," said Goldberger.
Experts also expressed concern over the growing trend of mixing alcohol and caffeine. This combination can be dangerous, as one recent incident showed.
A group of Central Washington University students became extremely ill after drinking Four Loko, a legal beverage that's a mix of alcohol and caffeine. Another popular drink is a mixture of Red Bull and vodka.
"Some folks think they can drive better by mixing caffeine with alcohol, but no study confirms that," said Clark. "Believing you can go drive this way has all kinds of problems associated with it."
The family of Michael Bedford also has a strong message about the dangers of products like the caffeine powder that led to his death.
"I feel like it should be banned," his grandmother told British media outlets.
"I think there should be a warning on it saying it can kill," his aunt said.