Things That Are Killing Us: Too much of a good thing
Anyone who’s taken high school chemistry might remember the concept of LD50 when it comes to measuring toxicity – the concept that for any substance, there is a specific dose that would kill half of test animals. While this concept is usually used in terms of toxic substances with fairly low LD50 numbers, meaning even a small amount can kill you, using this analysis can tell us exactly how much of a “good thing” we would need to consume before it kills us.
Hazing culture and reports of people dying from chugging beverages as a part of dares makes the fact that drinking too much water can kill you a bit less surprising than some of the other things on this list. Indeed, Erin Baldwin of Business Insider explains research done into the LD50 of water, which found that only six liters of water is enough to kill 50 percent of people.
The reason? Hyponatremia, or water intoxication, which is an excess of water in and around our cells that causes them to puff up like balloons. Water intoxication in mild cases leads to nausea and vomiting, often seen in athletes, but in its most potent form can lead to neurological damage like confusion, seizures, and yes… death.
Indeed, the news source Mirror reports that research has found that at least 14 people have died from drinking too much water while doing sports. That count doesn’t even acknowledge the countless examples of people dying from “challenges” to drink a certain amount of liquid, or deaths that happen in a less public setting.
While college students do end up in a love-hate relationship with coffee and other types of caffeine, going back and forth between the desire to get a caffeine boost to survive classes and the knowledge that caffeine isn’t good for your health, very rarely do we consider that too much caffeine can literally kill you.
Luckily, that’s a little hard to do. Baldwin explains that research has found that it would take 120 cups of coffee to reach the LD50 point where half of people die, mainly due to the caffeine. When in high concentrations, caffeine can cause a whole host of problems including insomnia, dizziness, vomiting, headaches, and heart problems.
The risk of death comes less from the coffee form of caffeine and more from its pure powder form, which people have a tendency to overdose with when making their own caffeinated drinks, or when taking caffeine tablets as a dietary supplement. Katherine Marengo of Medical News Today explains that the risk often comes when people combine the supplements with traditionally caffeinated beverages, and that a mere teaspoon of caffeine powder can be equivalent to 28 cups of coffee. Seems like that 120 threshold is much closer now, doesn’t it?
For that reason, Marengo cites a 2018 study that has identified 92 reported deaths from caffeine overdose.
Perhaps a bit of a random addition, but the reason for apples’ deadly nature was spooky enough it had to be included for this week’s Halloween issue.
The threshold for death by apple is simultaneously low and high depending on your ability to sit and chew for extended periods of time. Baldwin explains that for half of people to die of apple consumption, you’d have to eat around 22 whole apples in one sitting.
However, there’s no need to worry about death by apple for most people, because you have to eat the entire apple to be impacted. Baldwin explains that the risk of apple consumption comes from their seeds, which contain trace amounts of a sugar-cyanide compound that turns into the toxin cyanide while being processed in the body. Using the metrics of death by cyanide, which is roughly 1.5 milligrams of cyanide per kilogram of body weight, you’d have to chew and eat half a cup of apple seeds, or, you guessed it, around 22 apples.
Despite that lovely explanation of how apples can kill you, the only example of a person actually dying from apple consumption wasn’t in fact from sitting and eating 22 apples in one sitting. He died instead from the wax from apple peels being stored in strange manners in crystals across his pulmonary immune cells, lymph nodes, and other parts of the body.
Ending things in a more spirited fashion, the last thing (in this article) that will kill you if taken in overabundance is Halloween candy. Ilana Keller of USA Today examines past studies that look at the LD50 value for sugar, and then translates that into its Halloween candy equivalent. Their findings? That you would need to eat roughly 13.5 grams of sugar for every pound you weigh, and eat it all in one sitting.
Thus, an average 180-pound American would need to eat 5.4 pounds of sugar to have a 50/50 shot of a lethal overdose, putting us at a whopping 262 pieces of “Fun Size” candy bars or 1,627 pieces of candy corn (which is around 20,000 calories) to hit the sugar minimum for LD50.
It’s unlikely that a person will sit and eat enough Halloween candy to kill them. But sugar is killing people in other ways, with Laura Donovan of Salon reporting that sugary drinks alone have been linked to 184,000 deaths each year worldwide, due to the linkage of sugary drinks to conditions like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.