Pure Caffeine: Even a Teaspoon of Powder Can Be Fatal

Advocates are asking the FDA to ban concentrated caffeine products.

April 26, 2016, 9:52 PM

— -- One scoop. That’s all it takes to potentially end a life.

Every coffee drinker knows that too many cups can give you the jitters, but too much pure caffeine can be fatal within just minutes. One teaspoon of powdered pure caffeine is the equivalent of 25 cups of coffee.

Logan Stiner’s parents said he was just four days away from his high school graduation when he died from a caffeine overdose. The high school wrestling star was set to graduate fourth in his class and go on to study chemical engineering in the fall. His parents had never even heard of powdered caffeine and now they are personally lobbying the FDA to ban the substance.

“We didn’t know how much of it was circulating around, didn’t know what it was, never heard of it, and we thought we were pretty in the know,” his mother Kate Stiner told ABC News.

Concentrated caffeine can easily be purchased online as a powder, liquid or even an inhaler, and is often advertised as a health supplement, with little or no warning about its potency.

Lawmakers and advocates are calling on the FDA to ban concentrated caffeine products, saying there is no way they can be sold or consumed safely. They note it’s impossible to measure out the recommended dose of 1/16 teaspoon.

The parents of another victim, 24-year-old Wade Sweatt, said he died after going into a coma just minutes after trying the powder for the first time. On his phone, they found he had been Googling conversion charts trying to determine how much to take.

“It’s like an explosive, a catastrophe waiting to happen,” Sen Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told reporters today.

After Stiner and Sweatt died from caffeine overdoses in 2014, the FDA met with their families and began warning consumers against pure powdered caffeine.

The agency issued warning letters to five companies last year and all five have since stopped selling the bulk product, but other manufacturers still sell it online. A simple search shows dozens of options available both from foreign companies and domestic producers. Most are inexpensive and with no more warning than the words “use sparingly” on the label. The FDA issued a warning to a Minnesota-based company selling caffeine just last month.

Laura MacCleery is the director of regulatory affairs for an advocacy group that joined the senators and families to petition the FDA. She said it’s unclear exactly how many cases of caffeine overdose there are because most people don’t think of caffeine as dangerous and a fatal overdose can look just like a heart attack. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that dietary supplements send more than 23,000 people to the hospital every year. The FDA said Tuesday it has received no reports of adverse events since warning letters were sent out to five caffeine producers in August 2015.

Lawmakers say it is a “bitter disappointment” that the FDA has not moved more quickly on this issue and fear only more deaths will spur them to completely ban pure caffeine products.

Senators Sherrod Brown and Dick Durbin joined Blumenthal in calling on the FDA today to ban these products, saying that there is too much risk to wait for slower regulations. The FDA did not comment on a potential ban but said in a statement after the press conference that the agency will continue to monitor the market for dangerous products and encouraged Poison Control Centers to report calls related to caffeine to help consider future regulations.

Some states like Ohio and Illinois have banned pure caffeine products at a state level, but the senators said that anything below the federal level is practically impossible to enforce.