A striking news story today about an accidental overdose of caffeine at a UK university. The students were given 30g of caffeine instead of 0.3g – a very significant error. Apparently they did the calculations on a mobile phone and got the decimal point in the wrong place. This is a remarkably easy mistake to make. People who need to make sure they weigh things out correctly, cosmetic chemists included, take some trouble to make sure that they do this correctly. In this case the students were lucky things weren’t a lot worse. According to the account of the trial 18g has been enough to be fatal in the past. I have actually experienced something a little similar though much less serious.
Some years ago I was attending a course on sensory evaluation held at what was at that time a spin off company from Cadburys who at that time owned some coffee brands. They laid on rather a lot of rather splendid and strong coffee. So by the afternoon I was already pretty buzzing. This was when we were exposed to the five primary taste sensations: salty, sour, sweet,umami and bitter. We were given 5 plastic cups with solutions of each of them and had to identify them.
Four of them were very easy, but one of them had no taste at all. I drank nearly half the cup trying to detect a taste but it just tasted like slightly metallic water. I asked the supervisor about it, imagining I had been given plain water in error. He looked at me with astonishment and explained that this one was the bitter variation. It was basically a 1% solution of caffeine so I had drunk about a gram of it – about 10 times what you’d get from a cup of coffee.
I didn’t really realise the implications. I followed the rest of the course and simply went home. It was when I left the building that my behaviour altered. Several other delegates and I had arranged a taxi to the station. But I was too impatient to wait and decided to walk instead. In fact once I set out I actually ran most of it and got to the station before my friends – it was about 2 miles away.
I had a long wait on the station. No it was a short wait. But it was impossible to remain standing so I paced up and down. On the train I started writing up my notes from the course, which I completed when I got home, staying to around 3 to do so. I also prepared an extensive presentation on what I had learned and how we could put it to use. Getting notes and presentations together quickly was something I have always been able to do, but I think that to turn up the day after attending a course with all that done is something I have never done before or since, and I have never known anyone else do either.
The reason I hadn’t been able to taste the caffeine is that I have a condition that is so rare it doesn’t seem to have a name. It is like colour blindness but for taste, so I am unable to taste bitterness. Caffeinated and decaffeinated beers are indistinguishable to my tongue. All bitter beers taste the same to me, and I have a distinct preference for dark chocolate – the darker the better.
Looking back I think I had a very lucky escape. Had I driven rather than caught the train I think it is not at all unlikely I would have crashed the car. I was really unable to control myself and had almost no patience. I don’t blame the people who were running the course. It was a set of surprising circumstances. Who would expect anyone to drink large quantities of a very bitter liquid? And as nobody ever does that kind of thing, who would know what effect it would have?
My sympathies are with the students who were exposed to this high level of caffeine. They had about 30 times more than me so I cannot imagine the effect it had on them, other than knowing that this is a very powerful molecule. Most of us only have good experiences with caffeine, but it is as well to remember that the dose is important and that there is definitely a limit to how much you want to take.