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Dose alone makes a poison - plant aromas are not always harmless either

07/2002, 01.03.2002

Dose alone makes a poison - plant aromas are not always harmless either

Nature has a large spectrum of volatile plant aromas, so-called essential oils. Their characteristic feature is a particularly intense and strong aroma. For instance, in a pine forest the smallest amount of essential oil of turpentine per cubic metre air is enough to spread the characteristic, spicy aroma. It's not surprising that people associate a healthy and healing effect with these aromas but only rarely a risk. Although the essential oils are considered to be soothing and alleviating in the case of colds and flu, it is the dose of these oils, too, which makes a poison. This has been illustrated by serious cases of poisoning in children caused again and again by, in most cases, erroneous use of essential oils. BgVV is, therefore, urgently appealing to parents to exercise great caution when using plant aromas to treat their children and to only use them in accordance with their intended purpose.

Essential oils may have a toxic effect on the central nervous system, the kidneys and the respiratory tract. They differ considerably in respect of the potency of their effect on man. Camphor, eucalyptus (cineole) and peppermint (menthol) are highly toxic for instance. Oil of turpentine, orange/lemon-peel, tea-tree oil and oil of cloves are less toxic. Cosmetic products like perfumes, creams, soaps, etc. in which the proportion of essential oils is normally low are relatively safe. They can be ignored when it comes to poisoning.

By contrast, caution should be exercised in the case of products which have a high proportion of highly toxic essential oils. They include china oil, heat-inducing ointments or balsams, circulation-promoting sports ointments, special bath oils or bath oils to alleviate colds, aromatic oils for indoors or for aromatherapy and various diluting agents on a lemon base, e.g. for organic paint. If these products are inadvertently ingested, they may lead to severe poisoning. In babies and infants when even a few drops of essential oils reach the nasopharynx, they can trigger convulsions of the larynx and lead to respiratory disturbances. Experience from medical notifications about cases of poisoning and the German poison control centres shows fortunately that severe poisonings are very rare.

In most cases the inadvertent ingestion of essential oils "only" leads to reddening of the skin and mouth, abdominal pain, perhaps also nausea and vomiting. Very rarely there are short-lived symptoms like tiredness, restlessness, shivering and motor disturbances. Irrespective of whether the poisoning is minor or severe, all warning signs should be taken seriously and a poison control centre should be consulted.

An up-to-date list of the centres (PDF file) and a photo of essential oils (JPG format) are available on our homepage on http://www.bgvv.de/presse/2002/pr_02_07.htm.

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