You may want to keep your eyes on that spice rack this season.
Not only are teens huffing, smoking and eating large amounts of nutmeg in search of a quick high (many are taking a quick trip to the ER with convulsions instead), the traditional eggnog topper was recently pulled from shelves nationwide due to a salmonella scare.
Are our holiday spices out to get us?
Not exactly. But Deborah Blum, author of “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” says some spices can definitely be both naughty and nice.
“We tend to think of herbs and spices as wonderfully healthy because they’re natural plant products,” she says. “But natural doesn’t mean safe and many plants contain toxic compounds, which they evolved to fend off grazing animals and predatory insects. Could you kill someone with a well-spiced holiday cookie? Not likely, you’d have to shovel in so much spice that this would be one inedible treat. But are holiday spices simply benign little flavoring agents? Not entirely.”
Nutmeg, she says, is a prime example of a spice that can bite back when misused.
“Nutmeg has popped into the news recently because teenagers have tried smoking it for its hallucinogenic effects,” she says. “The problem is that these are pretty marginal effects and too much of the compound can make you pretty sick and dizzy. But if you poke around in the spice cabinet, you’ll run across other risky compounds.”
Case in point: cinnamon.
According to a report in Veterinary and Human Toxicology, 32 cases of cinnamon oil poisoning were called into the Pittsburgh Poison Center within a five-month period of 1990, each involving a teen-age boy who had ingested (or inhaled) an inordinate amount of the stuff. Some of the boys suffered from nausea or abdominal pain; others from welts on their skin or other dermal or ocular irritation (yep, they got in their eyes). Ingesting too much cinnamon can also cause rapid heart beat, lightheadedness, facial flushing and shortness of breath.
Clove oil is also dangerous when ingested in large quantities. In 2004 and 2005 two infants developed acute liver failure after accidentally swallowing about 10 milliliters of the oil. Not surprisingly, injecting it is also risky, causing acute respiratory distress and non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs). (And yes, someone actually tried this.)
Luckily, doctors were able to save both the babies and the walking Christmas clove ornament.
Too much vanilla can also mess with your body, as a 16-year-old boy discovered after his friends dared him to gulp down 12 ounces (that’s 1 ½ cups) of synthetic vanilla extract. Although the extract makes for one delicious sugar cookie, it contains 35 percent ethanol, which can cause central nervous system depression and respiratory compromise. Other fun effects include flushed skin, gastrointestinal distress, hypothermia and hypotension.
Apparently, even sprinkles have issues.
In 2003, stores in California began pulling those little silver balls (officially known as silver dragees) off their shelves after a lawsuit alleged that the silver BBs — used in everything from shortbread cookies to gingerbread houses — were toxic.
Could you actually poison yourself with these things?
“I wouldn’t worry,” says Blum. “Too much silver could turn you a lovely silver blue but you’d have to be swallowing those little silver balls by the bucket load. With any of these, you’d have to work very hard at making yourself or anyone sick.”