Essential Oil Ingestion: Documented Side Effects, Injuries, and Deaths
The technology-driven infancy of the 21st century spawned a virtual wild west of sorts—a vast and uncharted expanse first staked out by curious individuals seeking the simple comforts of connection through communication.
That old familiar greeting with a new twist, the visual component of instantaneous text, echoed off of digital walls and bounced around down invisible halls leading to the common folks' first sparsely populated chat rooms.
And just like that our first personal cyberspace connections were made. Seemed innocent enough. As the days went by more and more people came, chat rooms were abandoned like old school houses for expanded groups, then networks of groups, where crowded halls no longer efficiently funneled the traffic between them and, seemingly overnight, burst open onto faster paced highways. Super highways.
Information super highways.
Information no longer made up of timid requests like, "Is anybody here?" The people were here, the chatter was clear. Some spoke on impulse. But others—an ever growing population of others—spoke from rehearsed script. As casually as the rest, they chime in a friendly message, off-the-cuff message with a goal in mind and precision rhetoric.
The sales reps had come. Their territory now a new vitural one, the fascinating infrastructure of personalized channels of communication enchanted an untapped market leaving us all like sitting ducks, playfully splashing in the waters of an information flood.
We felt refreshed. We felt special again! We felt alive! And, we weren't going anywhere.
When profit-driven motives like multi-level marketing met the rise of personalized technology in the first part of the 21st century, the volatile design of freshly fascinating communication channels flooded with unrestricted, unverified information, cutting through a sea of aimless anybodies with dollar signs for heads, whose collective desire was to rebel against an institutionalized regimen they had convinced each other was concocted solely to destroy them, these conditions combined to create the perfect storm.
Case in point: the volatile liquids sold in little dark bottles that can replace our poisoned medicine and cure whatever ails us. I'm referring of course to essential oils...
...perhaps you've heard of them?
Like most successful ventures, essential oils owe due credit to their parents. Part of these oils' natural appeal comes straight from their source. Essential oils, or rather the easily evaporated aromatic liquid that can be extracted from some plants, are created naturally by some of our favorite fruits, flowers, and herbs. Relatively speaking, there are very low amounts of naturally occurring essential oils in a serving of fresh, whole food. Dried botanicals often contain a concentrated amount of essential oil, which is why you generally use half as much dried basil in your pot of spaghetti sauce compared to what you use fresh. These variations in concentrations are also why eating fresh fruit or drinking herbal teas does not pose the same risks as eating the potent, extracted essential oils straight from the bottle. Whole food preparations have the added benefit of offering parts from the rest of the plant—phytonutients, fibers, even water—that can act as synergists and buffers to help the body to gently and effectively process the active ingredients found in a plant's essential oil, and to help handle toxicities that may be inherently present.
Of course, that's not to say all plants are safe to eat or make into a tea. Some plants and their parts like nightshade, oleander, yew, jasmine berries and daffodil bulbs are poisonous and should not be consumed at all. But in regards to food we can comfortably eat, the essential oil content within a single serving is much lower in concentration than the essential oil extracted from literally pounds of a particular plant.
For over 40 years, Robert Tisserand's research and writing have turned a scientific eye to the properties of essential oils and their individual constituents. In 2007 he presented his report, “Challenges Facing Essential Oil Therapy: Proof of Safety," to the Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA) at their Denver, Colorado, conference. The article documents recorded injuries sustained by adults and children through varying degrees of essential oil use, in contrast to a commonly held belief by a prominent portion general public that the effects of essential oils can only be beneficial or benign by nature, and the practice of whole-heartedly defending this notion against those who propose otherwise. He reports:
“...in the context of foods ... [essential oil] is not regarded as dangerous, because of (a) the very small amount present, and (b) the co-presence of antioxidants and antimutagens. Our bodies have evolved to deal with small quantities of “toxins," which is why we have an immune system, antioxidant enzymes, base repair enzymes, etc.”
On deaths caused by essential oil ingestion Tisserand cites, "eucalyptus and pennyroyal oil, for example, have been fatal in 1 oz doses," and mentions the accepted traditional dosage for wormseed essential oil "was sometimes fatal to the child” as well.
Tisserand delves further to reveal constituents, components of an essential oil identified, named, and classified through the science of chemistry, noted to be responsible for seizures when essential oils containing them had been ingested in moderate doses. Some of the essential oils noted in his report to cause seizures include:
- Hyssop (2 doses of 10 drops)
- Sage (1 dose of 12 drops)
- Thuja (5 doses of 20 drops)
The National Capital Poison Center educates the public on the risks of essential oil ingestion. Poison Control warns that tea tree oil can be dangerously poisonous in less than 30 minutes if swallowed and advises one to contact the Poison Center (at 1-800-222-1222) right away if ingestion occurs. They back their information citing reported instances, like this one in which the ingestion of a small amount of tea tree oil fed to a child resulted in coma.
In an ongoing effort to raise awareness of the risks and responsibilities of using essential oils, certain organizations specializing in their use like the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy (AIA) have launched campaigns to collect individual accounts from consumers that experienced negative effects from their use. In 2014 the AIA documented 34 cases from volunteered reports involving adverse essential oil interactions. Of those reporting, 100% were female, mostly adults using the oils undiluted by mouth. Unwanted side effects occurred mostly from oral and/or topical use and included migraines and headaches, dizziness, throat and mouth irritation, gastrointestinal upset including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, rapid heartbeat, itching, hives, and cognitive dysfunction (delusions). The AIA released its most recent annual report in April, 2015.
Documented Cases in Scientific Journals
Over the years, dozens if not hundreds of scientific articles and journals documenting actual cases of essential oil fatalities have been published, some reports dating over 100 years. For example, just a few of these include:
- Pilapil VR: Toxic manifestation of cinnamon oil ingestion in a child. Clin Pediatr (Phil) 1989
- Webb NJ, Pitt WR: Eucalyptus oil poisoning in childhood: 41 cases in south-east Queensland. J Paediatr Child Health 1993
- Jacobs MR, Hornfeldt CS: Melaleuca oil poisoning. J Toxicol Clin Toxicol 1994
- Seawright A: Comment: tea tree oil poisoning. Med J Aust 1993
and even this one from 1898:
- Kimball HW: Poisoning by pennyroyal. Atlanta Med Weekly 1898
It is no secret that some of these oils can kill you. But in the recent hype of direct marketing, we seem to have casually forgot. It seems as though, somehow, common knowledge has been hidden from the masses and replaced by a maniacal enthusiasm for one's essential oil brand of choice, an old game used up salesmen have grown tired of playing and is now newly repackaged as a source of side income for mainly stay-at-home moms excited about organic and natural products.
Haddad and Winchester’s Clinical management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose, 4th ed., Chapter 101, “Essential Oils”, concisely reports on the toxicology of common essential oils, along with injuries and deaths that were a result of their use.
To begin, a reported dose of just 4mL of eucalyptus oil resulted in the death of an adult. In another case, 30mL caused seizures and death of an 8-month old. In a review of eucalyptus oil fatalities, common symptoms of early on-set poisoning are documented. Note that these are not potential factors for hypothetical circumstances - this is the information harvested from actual fatalities from eucalyptus oil poisoning that have already occurred.
Additionally, the chapter notes these specific, actual, and documented instances of internal essential oils use resulting in injury and/or death:
- Cinnamon Oil at 2.5mL/kg caused gastrointestinal symptoms, lethargy, rectal burning and dizziness in a 7-year old.
- Pennyroyal (Squaw Mint) Oil at 30mL caused poisoning and death of a young woman trying to induce abortion and was cited in the death of another 24-year old woman.
- Tea Tree Oil ingestion at less than 10mL of a prepared solution caused mental confusion and ataxia in a 23-month old boy. 1/2 cup of the straight oil resulted in coma in an adult for 48 hours.
Now, yes, 1/2 cup is a relatively large amount of essential oil to encounter. But in context, 1/2 cup is not an unheard of amount of food or drink to consume. Believing the ingestion of essential oils is safe without side effects, 1/2 cup should be as safe as a couple of drops. However, as demonstrated by the documented instance above, this is not the case.
- Menthol, as found in Peppermint Oil, caused unconsciousness in a 2-month old after drops were administered nasally.
- Ingestion of Clove Oil was responsible for coma, seizures, and liver damage in a young child.
Another article posted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information reports on the near fatal overdosing of a 3-year old that ingested 10mL of eucalyptus oil. It further notes that death has occurred in adults after ingesting just 4 to 5 mL, and lists the side effects of essential oil ingestion including mouth and throat burning, abdominal pain, vomiting, respiratory and central nervous issues.
Poison Center Data Collection
For over 30 years, the American Association of Poison Control Centers has issued an annual report which publishes data collected by the National Poison Data System (NPDS). Basically, if an event was called into a poison control center, it is documented in this annual report.
The reports can be found published in their entirety online and are available for public review. Each year, the report includes a table called "Demographic profile of SINGLE SUBSTANCE Nonpharmaceuticals exposure cases by generic category", in which "Essential Oils" is one of the catagories listed in the table. Essential oils included in the report year after year include cinnamon, eucalyptus, tea tree, pennyroyal and clove, with the additional category "miscellaneous oils" accounting for the bulk of injuries reported.
In 2010, over 10,000 cases of essential oil poisoning were called in to poison control centers, over 8,000 of those cases involving children age 5 or younger. Over 2,000 cases reported undesirable effects, with over 130 being moderate or major outcomes, and 1 death from eucalyptus oil.
In 2011, 168 moderate-to-major outcomes were reported, up 38 from the previous year. In 2012, 180 moderate-to-major outcomes, up 12 more. This is proof that not only does poisoning occur from essential oil ingestion, but the number of major poisonings is rising each year.
This information was derived from the American Association of Poison Control Centers' Annual Reports of National Poison Data Systems (NPDS). The 2012 report can be viewed here: https://aapcc.s3.amazonaws.com/pdfs/annual_reports/2012_NPDS_Annual_Report.pdf. Reports for previous years can also be located online through search engine searches.
Scientific Breakdown of Essential Oil Toxicity
Many people wonder how something born from nature can cause such severe results. Remember, essential oils are the straight extract of a whole plant, and it takes several pounds of plant material to produce even one ounce of essential oil. So while the oils themselves are all natural, their potentcy is, however, not a natural amount of essential oil to consume.
The chemical composition of essential oils often includes toxic constituents, even in the most popular oils. The toxic components vary from oil to oil, and as a result, so do the negative side effects one oil can produce over another. In addition to adverse reactions like allergies, and unwanted effects on nursing/pregnancy, young children and the elderly, some essential oils contain toxins that can cause seizures, respiratory failure, and kidney failure regardless of age or circumstance.
- Roman Chamomile Oil (Arthemis nobilis) includes tiglic acid, which can cause gastrointestinal upset, allergic reactions, bronchospasm, and can stimulate the uterus.
- Cinnamon Oil (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) includes cinnamic aldehyde which can lead to hypersensitivity, dermatitis, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, and oral lesions.
- Clove Oil (Syzygium aromaticum) includes THREE toxic components: eugenol, caryophillin, and vanillin. These can cause oral and skin irritation, allergic reactions, nausea, vomiting, respiratory symptoms, and notably, seizures.
- Eucalyptus Oil (Eucalyptus globulus) includes 1,8 cineole (eucalyptol) and hydrocyanic acid, responsible for vomiting, abdominal pain, respiratory depression, dizziness, headaches, ataxia, obtundation, coma, and again, seizures.
- Pennyroyal Oil (Mentha pulegium) contains pulegone, responsible for nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and even kidney failure.
- Peppermint Oil (Mentha species) includes menthol and menthone, reported by the University of Minnesota to cause breathing to stop in young children. These constituents can also lead to hypersensitivity, ataxia (a lack of voluntary muscle coordination), and myalgia (muscle pain).
- Pine Oil (Pinus species) is comprised of monoterpene, aromatic pine oil, and other hydrocarbons responsible for respiratory failure.
- Tea Tree Oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) includes Terpinen-4-ol (as does Juniper Oil) which can cause ataxia, stupor, and sores.
Ask your doctor if essential oil ingestion is right for you! (He'll say "no").
This information was recorded in Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose, 4th ed. (2007) in "TABLE 101-1 -- Selected Essential Oils and Their Toxicities."
Essential Oils Throughout History
From ancient times to today, humans have realized the value of the scented and volatile oils of plants. Called "essential oils", they were first obtained by placing plant material in fatty oils, a method encouraged by alchemists of the time. It was the Arabs that first distilled essential oils, and this method of collection then spread throughout the European countries during the Middle Ages. By the 1500's, distilled essential oils like cedarwood, rose, rosemary and sage were a feature of European apothecaries. As the spice and tea trade expanded, an ever-growing list of exotic spices and herbs were run through the distillation process in hopes of extracting the plant's essential oils, and by the 18th century the essential oils of over 100 different plants had been introduced.
From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, chemists studied these oils and vastly increased scientific knowledge of their chemical composition. Essential oils were found to be largely comprised of organic isoprene units called "terpenes". In addition, individual oils can be mostly made up of other compounds, like methyl salicylate in wintergreen and d-limonene in orange. Anywhere from dozens to hundreds of individual compounds may make up any one essential oil.
Over time, methods of steam distillation, cold-fat extractions (enfleurage), and hot-fat extractions (maceration) developed to extract the essential oil from the plants, depending on which plant was being distilled and the characteristics of its essential oil. For example, jasmine oil is too delicate to steam distill - it evaporates too quickly - so it must be harvested through enfleurage.
Throughout the 1900s, as essential oils became more readily produced and available, their use in medicinal preparations largely gave way to their use as scenting agents in cosmetics and perfumes, and as a flavoring agent in food and beverages.
This is the history of essential oils as reported in Encyclopedia Britannica. If it doesn't match what you've been told, take it up with them. Far be it from me to argue an encyclopedia.
In the late 1900s, sales and marketing companies began to offer essential oils through direct sales campaigns, and the information relayed in these one-on-one sales settings has become a hot topic of debate. These essential oil companies have become well-known for promoting the internal use of the straight essential oils, claiming ingesting the pure essential oil straight from the bottle is safe without side effects. However, as history has demonstrated, the internal use of essential oils, some very well-known and familiar to even lay-people, can result in side-effects, injuries, and even deaths. Though these cases are properly and professionally documented, easily obtainable and available for public review, people still demand proof of their existence while defending their decision to ingest straight essential oils to improve and maintain health.
Thankfully, this is not a new field of knowledge, and over 500 years of essential oil use as we now know it has provided a vast and rich pool from which to harvest information regarding the use of essential oils and the results of this use. In particular, this article will demonstrate that ingesting essential oils has led to side effects, injury, and death, a point of fact not up for debate.
Help Finding Reliable Information
To begin, you can obtain biomedical information regarding essential oil use, including both harmful and helpful toxicity (like the potential some essentials oils have for killing cancer cells) at the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health’s website. Their archives are home to over 12,000 scientific and medical abstracts and over 10,000 full text journal articles regarding essential oils. Some articles ask you to pay to view the report in its entirety, which usually prompts me to visit the reference section of my local library.
Which leads us to another source for reliable information: your local library.
For more targeted, specific information regarding the safety of ingesting specific essential oils, review the essential oil chapters in Haddad and Winchester’s Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose books. These publications concisely review the toxic constituents of a handful of popular essential oils and their effects on humans (both potential and recorded). Additionally, the chapter on essential oils in the 4th edition cites 60 additional sources of information on the toxicity of specific essential oils, including documented reports of injuries and deaths from their use.
Of course, these are not all of the reliable sources reporting on essential oil side effects, just a handful to get you started in the right direction.
Sometimes the Best Use of a Natural Substance
This article demonstrates that side-effects, injuries, and deaths resulting from the internal use of essential oils have in fact occurred, have been documented, and have been reported. Not everyone who eats a drop of essential oil is going to get sick or die, but people are poisoned by the hundreds from their improper use every year, dozens moderately to severely. Though buried by mounds of sales propaganda and aromatherapy gossip online, factual information on essential oil poisonings is available both online and in print.
Unlike essential oils, the conclusion of this article is simple and easy to digest. Essential oil ingestion carries with it the potential for side-effects, sometimes moderate to severe, including seizures and poisoning. It can, as it has in the past, be fatal. This point can no longer be debated - it is fact.
It is time to stop arguing whether it is completely safe to eat essential oils straight from the bottle. It's not. After reading this article, you may choose to continue using essential oils internally. You may argue that not enough people are injured by eating essential oils each year to really pay attention to the facts presented here. But you may no longer argue that the practice is completely safe without the risk of side effects. Besides, if you eat the oil, you forgo all the therapeutic benefits of the oil's aroma—specifically its vapors.
Floracopeia.com points out that inhaling essential oils (as is the basis of "aroma"therapy) isn't just a good way to benefit from essential oil use, but may be the best way:
"One of the recent discoveries of aromatic research is that the antimicrobial effects of essential oils are most potent not when the oil is used in liquid form, as when applying tea tree to a fungal infection, but when pathogens are exposed to the vapors of the oils.
This means that the most effective way of utilizing essential oils for reducing atmospheric contagion, neutralizing air-borne illnesses and enhancing immunity is through the use of aromatic diffusers. It has also been found that it is not necessary to have a high concentration of oil in the atmosphere for it to be effective; only a minimum amount of oil dispersed from a diffuser is necessary for optimum biological and immunological effects." - (Crowe, D., floracopeia.com, 20 May 2014).
So if inhalation is a safer, more effective use of the oils, what are you eating them for? Until instructed by a clinical aromatherapist to ingest, which would still most likely be via dilution, it's wise to forgo the unnecessary risks and use essential oils safely, especially if it is every bit as effective.