Death by Caffeine

A couple of weeks ago, I was taking some kids in our carpool home and they were talking about how their moms make them eat breakfast every day (seriously, kids today are so abused). One girl said that she will usually just have an energy drink or two and I caught my 12-year old looking at me in the rear view mirror in horror. You see, I have pretty much forbidden caffeine consumption by my son. He has a Tetralogy of Fallot — a congenital heart defect — and while it has been “repaired” and doesn’t really have any physical restrictions, his heart still works differently than a normal heart. You can read more about Tetralogy of Fallot here, but the bottom line is that he still has a leaky pulmonary valve, which causes his heart’s right pumping chamber to have to pump a little harder than it otherwise would to pump more blood – both the backward-flowing leaked blood and the incoming blood from the heart’s right upper chamber. Imagine if you only worked out your right bicep muscle — it would become significantly larger than the left. That’s the same thing that can happen to the heart. Over time, the extra work can cause the pumping chamber to enlarge significantly and could lead to heart failure. It’s something we monitor annually, so the likelihood of it happening to Jake is slim, but there may come a day when that pulmonary valve has to be replaced. What does that have to do with caffeine? Caffeine elevates your heart rate and blood pressure, which also cause the heart to have to work harder than it normally does. I see no reason to make Jake’s heart work even harder, so that’s why I have been pretty adamant about the issue.

Enter energy drinks. And middle school. Energy drinks are marketed toward young people. Young people are easily swayed by marketing. And, peer pressure. Middle schoolers like to tease other middle schoolers, saying things like “oh, your Mommy doesn’t want you to drink caffeine” and other nonsense. Twelve year olds don’t generally worry about their mortality because they are 12. They also start to worry more about what their friends think than what their parents say. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Last December, Anais Delilah Fournie, a 14 year old girl in Maryland died after drinking 2 energy drinks. My understanding is that she didn’t drink them back to back — it was within a 24 hour period of time. Even so, those two drinks caused caffeine toxicity which basically overloaded her heart and it began to beat irregularly (cardiac arrhythmia). And, she died. Of a heart attack. At age 14. Here’s a clip from Anderson Cooper:

Let’s talk about Caffeine toxicity. Toxicity refers to a degree of being toxic. Toxic = poison. As parents of young children, I imagine most of us taught our kids about Mr. Yuk — and locked away anything that might be remotely poisonous so that our kids would not get into them. Many of us may have even called that number on the Mr. Yuk sticker. I know I did at least once. We diligently follow the recommended dosing chart that our pediatricians give us to determine how much Tylenol we can safely give our kids based on their weight.

So, why on earth — now that they are older are we letting them put poison into their bodies? Is it that we aren’t educated about the dangers of large amounts of caffeine? Do we not know the caffeine content in these drinks? Do we not know what “safe” levels of caffeine consumption are? Are we convinced that they are safe because they are available to buy? Or are we unaware that our kids are drinking them?

As a parent, I call BS on “not knowing”. The facts are available to anyone who looks for them. Granted, we have learned some of this the hard way. When these drinks first began to come on the market, we did not have the knowledge that we do now. But, we do now. And, this is the United States of America and we have a 24 hour news cycle and internet access and smartphones and we just don’t have an excuse not to know. And, if you still don’t know, here are some facts:

  • A recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that energy drinks pose potentially serious health risks. The report found that between 2005 – 2009, the number of emergency room (ER) visits due to energy drinks increased ten-fold from 1,128 to 13,114 visits.
  • 30 to 50 percent of adolescents report consuming energy drinks (in other words, that glossy advertising targeting young people works).
  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, adolescents should not consume more than 100mg of caffeine daily. One 16oz can of Monster contains 160mg of caffeine, which is equivalent to almost 5 cans of soda. However, this caffeine level does not account for caffeine from additives, like guarana, or ingredients with stimulating properties, like taurine and ginseng, which most energy drinks also contain. In other words, it’s impossible to know just how much caffeine is in those drinks. The labels reflect the MINIMUM amount of caffeine.
  • Consuming large quantities of caffeine can have serious health consequences, including caffeine toxicity, stroke, anxiety, arrhythmia, and in some cases death. Young people are especially susceptible to suffering adverse effects because energy drinks market to youth, their bodies are not accustomed to caffeine, and energy drinks contain high levels of caffeine and stimulating additives that may interact when used in combination.
  • The FDA has the authority to regulate caffeine levels in soft drinks to .02 percent or less of the product – about 71mg in a 12oz soda. The agency also has the authority to regulate additives in beverages to ensure they are safe for their intended use and when used in combination with other ingredients.
  • Most energy drinks are currently marketed as dietary supplements, therefore they do not need to establish evidence of their products’ safety or adhere to a limit on the level of caffeine. At the same time, many energy drinks come in single-use containers ranging from 8oz to 32oz and are marketed like beverages. Rockstar Energy Drink’s website says, “enjoy this fully refreshing lightly carbonated beverage.”

Responsibility #1 is on the part of parents. We need to educate ourselves. And, then we need to educate our kids. If we teach our kids to wear a seat belt and that smoking is bad for them and that they shouldn’t drink and drive, then we need to take this just as seriously (and while we’re at it, we need to tell them not to text and drive, but that’s another post entirely).

Then, we need to put pressure on the FDA to regulate these products. As stated in the Anderson Cooper clip, moms have power. Write a letter to the FDA, contact your representative — let them know that you are aware and you want regulation on these drinks. Don’t know the address? Here ya go:

The Honorable Margaret Hamburg
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
10903 Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20093

Don’t know who your representative is? You can find out here: Who is my Representative? There is also contact information for each of them once you’ve put your information into the search fields.

Don’t know what to say? Read this letter from Dick Durbin (D-IL). It’s full of good information and lays out exactly what lawmakers are asking of the FDA (and incidentally, most of the facts I listed above were taken from this press release).

And, if you’re reading this and still thinking, what is the big deal? Put yourself in Wendy’s shoes. She lost her daughter in a tragic turn of events that could have been prevented. You don’t want to ever be there. I promise. And, if you’ve read this post, you can’t claim you didn’t know.

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