The Other White Powder That Can Kill You
A spoonful of powdered caffeine is enough to kill someone—near instantly. How the deadly white powder slid past the FDA.
Wade Sweatt died from a white powder. Immediately after trying it, the 24-year-old told his wife that it was “making [him] sick,” his parents recalled in a statement. Then, his heart stopped working.
“What followed was several long terrible days, in which Wade had cardiac arrest over and over again,” his parents wrote. “We finally had to make the terrible decision to take him off life support, after it was clear that he was brain dead.”
The white powder Sweatt ingested was not cocaine. It was the same substance found in a bar of chocolate or your morning coffee, only packaged in a more concentrated form: powdered caffeine.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ingesting a single teaspoon of powdered caffeine is “roughly equivalent” to drinking 28 cups of coffee at once. In large amounts, it can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Overdosing can result in a “rapid or dangerously erratic heartbeat, seizures, and death.”
Even more frightening is how easy it is to take too much pure caffeine. One brand recommended that consumers use a “1/32 teaspoon” to measure a safe amount. For comparison, a “pinch” of salt is generally considered to be one-sixteenth of a teaspoon.
According to ABC News, Sweatt had been searching the Internet for conversion tables shortly before his death in order to determine a safe amount. His calculation was fatal. Sweatt died in June of 2014. The month before, high school wrestler Logan Stiner also overdosed on the powder and passed away days before graduation.
Since their untimely deaths, the FDA has posted a consumer advisory about powdered caffeine and written six warning letters to companies that sell it. But the federal agency has not yet banned the product. That seeming delay has prompted the Center for Science and the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit organization focused on nutrition and food safety, to urge the FDA to take swifter action.
“It is astonishing that a substance that is fatal for adults in the amount of two tablespoons is sold cheaply over the Internet as loose powder in large bags without clear warnings,” said CSPI Regulatory Affairs Director Laura MacCleery in a statement.
FDA officials met with the families of both Sweatt and Stiner in December of 2014 and again this Tuesday.
The FDA told The Daily Beast that it cannot discuss the pending CSPI petition to ban powdered caffeine but a spokesperson said that “the FDA takes concerns raised about safety of these types of products very seriously and we are considering the matters raised by the petition and giving it our careful attention.”
For the CSPI, the wait has already been too long for comfort.
In her statement, MacCleery noted that after “a quick Google search,” the watchdog group was able to order a bottle of liquid caffeine from South Korea that was strong enough to “kill nearly seven people.”
“We easily purchased large bags of pure powder sufficient to kill several dozen people, and a gallon jug of what looks like water but is actually a highly caffeinated liquid—a cup of which would be a fatal dose,” she added.
As the National Institute for Drug Abuse notes, powdered caffeine is especially appealing to young people who want “added caffeine stimulation” and to those who believe the inconclusive evidence that caffeine can assist in weight loss. And before the high-profile deaths of Sweatt and Stiner, it was even easier to access than it is now.
The FDA’s first action against the powdered caffeine market came in July 2014 after the agency learned of Stiner’s fatal overdose. That tragedy prompted an official warning, which urged consumers to avoid the product and stressed that it is “nearly impossible to accurately measure pure powdered caffeine with common kitchen measuring tools and you can easily consume a lethal amount.”
The following summer, the agency wrote five warning letters to companies that were distributing powdered caffeine and allegedly violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
One company was recommending that consumers use a quarter-teaspoon tool to measure a recommended dose of approximately one-third of a quarter teaspoon (PDF).
Another product label for a bag of powdered caffeine included information about how many milligrams of caffeine were in a quarter-teaspoon, even though the maximum recommended dose size was only one-sixteenth of a teaspoon (PDF). If someone were to have mistaken the quarter-teaspoon measure for a recommendation, they would have downed the equivalent of eight cups of coffee in a heartbeat.
And given how minuscule pure caffeine doses are supposed to be, many of the packages contained an alarming quantity of the powder. One package cited by the FDA contained over 125,000 servings, which is enough for three people to have one dose per day for over 100 years (PDF).
Four out of five of these products were taken off the market after the warning letters were sent out, the FDA told The Daily Beast, and the lone holdout is “no longer marketed to consumers.”
Just last month, they had to send another letter to a company that was falsely marketing powdered caffeine as a fat-burning drug (PDF).
So far, the FDA has not received any new reports of deaths resulting from powdered caffeine but a spokesperson said that they are still “concerned” about its sale and will “consider every legal option in determining the best path forward.”
But the CSPI—and the families of the teenagers who overdosed—believe that the only acceptable action is a categorical ban. A ban, they note, would allow the FDA to seize powdered caffeine at the border and penalize any company that sells it.
“Any action less than a ban would be confirmation that FDA has lost its way,” said MacCleery.