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E-Cigarette Overdose: How Much Liquid Nicotine Would It Take To Kill You?

Above: Liquid nicotine comes in different shapes, sizes, and concentrations.

Nicotine is a poison. And not just a long-term poison in the sense that smoking can put you on the slow but steady road to cancer.

It's a poison like arsenic or cyanide is a poison. Enough of it can kill you dead, in minutes flat. Just ask Gustave Fougnies, the wealthy brother-in-law of the greedy Belgian Count Hippolyte Visart de Bocarmé. Oh wait, you can't, because he's dead — murdered by nicotine poisoning.

Nicotine's poisonous properties were highlighted in a recent article in The New York Times that raised concerns about e-cigarettes and the bottles of liquid nicotine used to refill them. The director of California Poison Control's San Diego division, Lee Cantrell, told reporter Matt Richtel:

It’s not a matter of if a child will be seriously poisoned or killed. It’s a matter of when.

E-cigarettes must be accustomed to public scrutiny by now, especially in San Diego County. Carlsbad, Vista, Solana Beach and Poway have all banned e-cigarettes wherever tobacco is already prohibited. The city of San Diego is considering a similar ordinance.

Cantrell's quote about nicotine's potential deadliness got me wondering... how much liquid nicotine would it take to kill you? The answer to that question turned out to be more complicated than I expected.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 60 milligrams of nicotine is enough to kill a 150-pound adult. That's alarming! Because some e-cigarette "juice" formulas pack as much as 72 milligrams per refill. Even if nicotine isn't absorbed fully when inhaled as a vapor, that's getting scary close to lethal territory. If you plan to suck this stuff down quickly (pushing through the nausea signaling you've had enough), you might want to prepare your last will and testament.

Or maybe not.

A closer look at the history behind nicotine's stated lethal dose suggests 60 milligrams probably isn't anywhere near enough to kill. German toxicologist Bernd Mayer wanted to know where this number came from, so he traced it back to a dubious 19th century experiment carried out by two brave researchers... on themselves.

After consuming a reported dose of just 4 milligrams of nicotine, the men known only as Dworzack and Heinrich...

...became agitated, suffered from headache, dizziness, numbness, cloudy vision and hearing, light sensitivity, anxiety, dryness of the throat, coldness of the limbs, ructus [belch], flatulence, nausea, vomiting and rectal tenesmus ... After 45 minutes the experimenters lost consciousness. One of them suffered clonic seizures for 2 hours, particularly of the respiratory muscles, also tremors of the limbs and shivering over the whole body.

If these symptoms seem drastic for the amount of nicotine consumed, they are. Two cigarettes alone can pack 4 milligrams of nicotine, and plenty of chain-smokers go through multiple cigarettes without puking, passing out or having seizures. But 50 years later, another German scientist uncritically took Dworzack and Heinrich's results, did some arbitrary math and produced the 60 milligram figure still cited today.

Mayer suggests the true lethal dose of nicotine may be 10 times higher than the CDC's estimates. Meaning you'd have to hastily refill your e-cigarette at least 10 times with the strongest juice on the market before vaping got you anywhere near the grim reaper. Even then, you still might live. One case study documents a person who ingested 1,500 milligrams of liquid nicotine and survived, suffering no worse than "abdominal pain and voluminous vomiting."

But for Cantrell and other toxicologists worried about liquid nicotine, vaping isn't the problem. The refill bottles are the problem. The larger containers of the more concentrated stuff pack enough nicotine to endanger small children, who might mistake the brightly labelled and sweetly flavored products as candy. Liquid nicotine has already killed a cute bull terrier in England and been the agent for at least one suicide.

Put simply, the question "How Much Liquid Nicotine Would It Take To Kill You?" leads to two answers. "A Lot!" and "Actually, Not That Much." Smoking a single refill of strong 72 milligram juice won't kill you, as CDC information seems to suggest. Most people vape much lower concentrations, anyway. But drinking a whole bottle of that juice could easily turn deadly. For instance, that bottle I linked to earlier contains 3,600 milligrams of nicotine total. We may not know the exact lethal dose of nicotine, but I'm not about to chug 3,600 milligrams in hopes of finding out.

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Avatar for user 'Mmikey'

Mmikey | March 29, 2014 at 8:01 a.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

no mention of some fools getting high with the ecigs using over the counter IMODIUM® (loperamide hydrochloride)?

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Avatar for user 'IlliniVaper'

IlliniVaper | March 29, 2014 at 11:04 a.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

The problem with the bottle you linked to is that it is intended as a base for mixing, not using it straight. There is even a bright red disclaimer that states that right under the pictures on that site..and another one under the instructional video. No one in their right mind would try to vape 72mg liquid. The higher you go with nicotine content in e-liquid, the more of a "throat hit" you will get. The throat hit from 72mg liquid would probably feel like someone was ripping your throat out.

People who mix their own liquid use a high nicotine base because they know that once the other ingredients are mixed with it the nicotine content will be greatly reduced.

The actual liquid most vapers use is anywhere from 0-24mg.

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Avatar for user 'IlliniVaper'

IlliniVaper | March 29, 2014 at 11:28 a.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

To date, not a single person has died from nicotine overdose associated with using an ecig and the have been sold in the USA since 2006. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for caffiene infused energy drinks during the same timeframe.

Taken from an article published on AlterNet on November 15, 2012

"But we may finally be approaching the limits of our appetites. A spate of recent caffeine-related deaths is challenging the perception that caffeine is a safe and legal high. Over the last four years, 13 people have died in incidents that involve 5-Hour Energy, the 2-ounce drink which boasts in television ads that it’s been recommended by 73 percent of doctors. Similarly, the Federal Drug Administration acknowledged in October that five additional people have died in incidents that involve Monster Energy"

These toxicologists claim to be worried about the refill bottles for ecigs, but do they even bat an eye about the fact anyone can by pure, powdered caffiene from several popular sites on the internet? In 2010 a man in the UK ingested 2 spoonfulls of pure nicotine powder and died shortly after. Google "powdered nicotine" and see just how easy it is to obtain.

I am not saying that e-liquid refill bottles don't present a hazard, they can if not properly stored away from small children and pets. I am just trying to point out that there are simillar, even more popular substances, that pose just as much, if not more, of a hazard yet we never hear a peep from these health experts about them.

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Avatar for user 'muckapoo1'

muckapoo1 | March 30, 2014 at 11:42 a.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

There is enough aspirin in most bottles to kill you too. What is the point here? Is this just more dumb ammo for the control freaks of the county? They just cannot harass these fine folks who quit smoking tobacco enough. This is what happens when the lib bleeding hearts take over. Next, we will being told what uniform to wear.

Disclaimer: I do not smoke. So don't start on that rant.

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Avatar for user 'RebeccaR'

RebeccaR | March 30, 2014 at 7:08 p.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

Well, they sell giant bottles of alcohol but that doesn't mean one should down the whole thing, or the alcohol industry is to blame if someone does.

Root beer isn't really a beer, and I don't see hysteria over it for being a look alike sound alike.

Vaping does strongly resemble smoking, but it is a new device that is saving lives, not killing people.Of course there is a risk, as with anything out there, but that doesn't mean one takes another's liberty away, and especially since it's a lifesaving tool.

I wish people would stop stigmatizing, regulating and taxing the vaping industry to death, because it is saving lives, and for all the misinformation out there, a live is lost.

I should know. I was a 40 year smoker and I quit because of vaping. I finally feel like I am going to live. I would have quit 3 years ago if not for all this hysteria. 3 years is a life or death matter to someone that smoked as long as I did. I hope that those three years weren't the ones that pushed my body over the edge.

In answer to the article. I don't know how much nicotine it takes to kill a person. I know that in the method marketed in the industry today, it is handy for me to use, and I need it to remain that way, and i think others do as well. I know I am ingesting much less nicotine now per day than I was when I was smoking and I've tried a few other options.

1) Vaping. While I have vaped too much a couple times and got myself a bit nauseous, it's an easy fix to just stop vaping 'til it clears. Vaping has an inherent 'step down' program not often talked about, and as a former 40 year smoker, I am almost down to 0mg on a regular basis. That's a huge milestone.

2) Keep smoking. I have been nauseous before while smoking, in the 40 years but the nicotine and other chemicals in that habit builds up to one smokes more.

3) In the FED ACT stop smoking program, I was nauseous a few times there too, and that was NOT an easy fix. The worst nausea I ever felt was from using those patches. I went through two FDA ACT classes and tried previously with the patch on my own. Does not work.

Out of the three options I just outlined above.. only ONE is a lifesaver, and worth the risk of handling the nicotine. By golly, as a former 40 years smoker, I just might now live.

So what happens if I accidentally spill a bottle on me? Probably nothing!!! I would just wash it off right away. I can't wash out my lungs from smoking.

We don't hear a lot about the accidental OD from vaping because people aren't doing it for thrills, they are doing it because they want to live.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | March 31, 2014 at 8:40 a.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

muckapoo1 this country needs more people like you (and me).

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Avatar for user 'IlliniVaper'

IlliniVaper | March 31, 2014 at 9:22 a.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

I just came back to see what new comments there were and noticed a typo in my second comment. I meant to say Google "powdered caffeine" not powdered nicotine.

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Avatar for user 'wildrose307'

wildrose307 | March 31, 2014 at 5:37 p.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

You do know how science works, right? That's 72mg PER LITER. That means you'd have to somehow consume an entire liter of liquid to get 72 mg of nicotine. Further, most vape shops don't sell any higher than 24mg/L or 2.4%. Some sell 36mg/L or 3.6%, but they are pretty rare.

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Avatar for user 'wildrose307'

wildrose307 | March 31, 2014 at 5:37 p.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

Good job JeanMarc and muchapoo1. Shame, KPBS for your fear-mongering and fluff-promotion.

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Avatar for user 'muckapoo1'

muckapoo1 | March 31, 2014 at 8:29 p.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

Thank you.

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Avatar for user 'savagenation'

savagenation | April 1, 2014 at 5:17 a.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

Sick Care/Big Pharma and Tobacco Drug industries love this fearmongering as they all make Billions on the Smoking/Smoking Cessation cycles.

Aside from the hundreds of thousands of yearly Smoking deaths, there are reported/underreported estimates of 100,000 or more deaths from Prescription Medicines in/out of medical facilities.

Worry about the Multinational Drug Dealers killing you, the numbers are there.

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Avatar for user 'muckapoo1'

muckapoo1 | April 1, 2014 at 1:26 p.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

You cannot protect stupid people from themselves.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | April 2, 2014 at 8:23 a.m. ― 2 years, 11 months ago

muckapoo - This is true, but the leftists think it is the role of the government to be parents to everyone. The leftists want to remove all self responsibility from citizens and hand control of their lives over to the government to handle our healthcare, retirement, everything. Just look at the latest generation of kids to graduate college. Kids who grow up playing sports where scores are not kept and everyone gets a trophy, and standing up for yourself against a bully is grounds for punishment, finish college completely unprepared for the challenges of the real world.

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Avatar for user 'muckapoo1'

muckapoo1 | April 2, 2014 at 4:45 p.m. ― 2 years, 11 months ago

The government prefers dumb people. The more people memorizing rap, watching Idol, and smoking dope is their plan. Keep them dumb and poor. Therefore, they NEED that government involvement in their lives. A leftist's dream come true.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | April 3, 2014 at 3:36 p.m. ― 2 years, 11 months ago

Exactly. Give them some obamaphones and healthcare, they will vote for you every time. Useful idiots indeed.

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Avatar for user 'moflicky'

moflicky | April 9, 2014 at 8:31 a.m. ― 2 years, 11 months ago

The 72mg nicotine you linked is unflavored concentrate and not for vaping straight up. no one would buy that unless they were making their own juice. No one tries to make their own juice without doing the research and taking the proper precautions.

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Avatar for user 'moflicky'

moflicky | April 9, 2014 at 8:36 a.m. ― 2 years, 11 months ago

wildrose307: that's 72mg per milliliter, not liter.

still, even flavored 72mg nicotine is going to taste awful and burn as it goes down. No child is going to get past that nasty taste to consume enough to die.

I vape 6mg e-liquid and the taste on my tongue is too much to take more than a drop or two.

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Avatar for user 'windwolf'

windwolf | April 16, 2014 at 10:04 a.m. ― 2 years, 11 months ago

The problem is, follow the money. The government will shut this all down when it starts hurting their bottom line. If enough of us quit, they lose revenue. They don't want us healthy. I quit with a vape pen, after 42 years of smoking. It works, and they will start taxing it just as tobacco.

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Avatar for user 'kitty6593'

kitty6593 | May 9, 2014 at 5:48 p.m. ― 2 years, 10 months ago

The liquid I get for my e cig has a child proof cap and if you keep it out of reach of children and pets you shouldn't have a problem. Why don't we ban cough medicine small children an animals could get into that and get sick? It's the user's responsibility to keep it in a safe spot not the company's. With the logic that it's the company who has to make it safe instead of the consumer's to put it in a safe place, we should ban knives, alcohol, normal cigarettes, dip, any medicine weather it has a child proof cap or not, lighters, and batteries.

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Avatar for user 'Kozyranger'

Kozyranger | May 21, 2014 at 2:11 p.m. ― 2 years, 10 months ago

I don't use nicotine in my E-cig. Please leave it alone. I have managed to quit smoking but still like the motion. So the e-cig with 0 nic is my solution to not picking a cigarette back up every time I hang out with friends who smoke. The 0 nicotine is the reason that tobacco farmers want this stuff banned. Nicotine doesn't come from nowhere. Meaning obviously some farm somewhere is helping by providing nicotine for the e-cigs. However people like me who have quit don't need that farmer anymore. We just need the e-cig and some flavored liquid. :)

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