The unrestricted availability of the substance and its growing popularity as a workout and dietary item means that there’s a risk of Australians dying or suffering serious health complications, an expert has warned.
Lachlan Foote was just 21 when he collapsed on the floor of his family’s Blackheath home on New Year’s Day in 2018, a day before his birthday, after suffering a heart attack.
The gifted musician had made a protein shake using caffeine powder, not knowing how potent and dangerous it is, and experienced an acute toxicity that quickly killed him.
“These sorts of stories don’t particularly surprise me, I’m afraid,” Dr Ian Musgrave, a molecular pharmacologist and lecturer at Adelaide Medical School, told news.com.au.
“The idea that you can just buy pure raw caffeine and spoon it out with no instruction or warning is horrifying.
“It’s crazy that it’s so easily accessible. You can buy this stuff from all over the place.”
News.com.au is calling for pure caffeine powder to be banned in Australia for personal usage, in light of Lachlan’s sudden and senseless death.
Death from caffeine toxicity is rare, as a cup of coffee contains about 80mg of caffeine, and the average adult consumes between 110 and 260mg per day.
“A teaspoon of pure caffeine contains around about four grams of caffeine, which is in the zone where you could expect toxicity,” Dr Musgrave said.
That’s like drinking 50 cups of coffee at once, or 60 cans of the highly caffeinated energy drink Red Bull.
“The symptoms of caffeine toxicity at the lower end of the scale include palpitations, agitation, gastrointestinal problems, and they generally resolve well,” Dr Musgrave said.
“From there you could see dizziness, nausea and anxiety. Towards the higher end, seizures and cardiac arrhythmia can occur. And in the worst cases, as we’ve seen, death from heart attack or stroke.”
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The problem with pure caffeine powder is the lack of awareness of its potency and the fact that those who it in protein shakes don’t have specific measuring equipment, such as electronic scales.
It means overdosing could be very easy, particularly among bodybuilders who tend to have “a more cavalier approach to supplement usage”, Dr Musgrave said.
“I think in many ways we’re lucky that we haven’t seen more deaths from caffeine toxicity.”
The Food and Drug Administration in the United States restricted the sale of pure caffeine powder in large quantities for personal use after a string of deaths and near missed.
“The difference between a safe amount and a toxic dose of caffeine in these pure powdered products is very small,” it warned.
The sale of pure caffeine powder is unregulated in Australia and fitness enthusiasts use it as a pre-workout to boost energy, as well as a diet supplement to suppress appetite and boost metabolism.
“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” Dr Musgrave said.
“We tend not to think of sports supplements of workout supplements as potentially harmful. But if you’re making up your own and using any old kitchen spoon, we can see all sorts of problems arising.
“If people aren’t aware of the risks and don’t take appropriate action, we’re going to end up with another tragedy like this,” he said.
“We need appropriate warnings and labelling on these products. People are likely using these compounds without knowing safe dosage and not knowing the risks.
“Again, it doesn’t happen very often and I don’t want to spark mass panic, but people need to be aware of the lethal potential of caffeine in high concentration. And people with health conditions could be at risk in low concentration.”
Lachlan was fit and healthy, and a toxicology report found there were no other substances in his system.
His family believes he had no idea how potent and dangerous the powder was and are calling for pure caffeine products to be banned or at the very least seriously restricted.
Labor’s health spokesman Chris Bowen called for the issue to be urgently examined by authorities at all levels.
“Reports that people have been dying from toxic levels of caffeine powder purchased in an unregulated market are deeply concerning and sad,” Mr Bowen told news.com.au
“I would urge the state and federal health ministers to prioritise examining this matter through COAG processes as soon as possible.”
Health Minister Greg Hunt did not respond to a request for comment.
The Therapeutic Good Administration imposes restrictions on medicines that contain caffeine and its register of products doesn’t contain any pure caffeine powder supplements.
“As such, it is illegal to sell these products in Australia if they make therapeutic claims,” a spokesperson for the TGA said.
But so long as pure caffeine powder isn’t specifically marketed as a health or medicinal product, it can be sold in Australia without regulation.
The sale of large quantities of pure caffeine powder for personal use is legal in this country.
“The dose for adults and children 12 years and over of preparations containing caffeine for use as a stimulant or alerting agent should be consistent with the following — 100mg per dose maximum, which may be repeated at three hourly intervals (and) do not exceed 600mg in 24 hours.”
In 2014, Ohio high school student Logan Stiner died just days before he was to graduate after collapsing at home due to heart attack brought on by caffeine toxicity.
The 18-year-old champion wrestler, gifted student and popular local used the powder, which he bought on Amazon, in a protein shake.
Just weeks later, Wade Sweatt, a recent university graduate in the state of Georgia, made a drink with powdered caffeine. The 24-year-old overdosed, slipped into a coma and later died.
Authorities in the US banned the sale of dangerous pure caffeine products directly to consumers following the deaths.
“It is inherently irresponsible to market such a potentially dangerous product,” Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner of foods at the DFA in the US, said.
“I would hope that people would get the message that they just ought to stop selling it and the agency will pursue all legal options against those who don’t.”
Several people have survived close calls with caffeine toxicity.
Kevin Carley, a Wisconsin man, collapsed while on a treadmill after taking a pre-workout caffeine supplement after suffering a heart attack.
He was placed in a medically induced coma for several days but miraculously survived.
And a woman in Portugal who mixed up the spoons she used to measure protein powder and caffeine powder was hospitalised with toxicity symptoms but survived.