Published on the IFEAT website 15th May 2020
By Wladyslaw S. Brud, Polish Aromatherapy Association
IFEAT Scientific Committee
In the November 2019 issue of “The Medical Journal of Australia” (Australia’s most trusted source of medical information) a research letter entitled “Essential oil exposures in Australia: analysis of cases reported to the NSW Poisons Information Centre” was published 1. On the basis of that publication information was elaborated and published by Mike McRae on the website www.sciencealert.com as “Essential Oil Poisoning is on the Rise. Here’s What You Need to Know” 2.
The original paper was a collection of data from the New South Wales Poisons Information Centre (NSWPIC) concerning recorded cases of essential oil exposures, including the essential oils involved and changes over time, the demographic characteristics of exposed persons, and seasonality. The analysis covered the period between July 2014 and June 2018 and concentrated on eucalyptus, tea tree, lavender, peppermint and clove oils. It is worth noting that the first two are Australian by origin and used all over the world, since their discovery by the famous British sailor James Cook (1728–1779). Cook was an explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the British Royal Navy. He achieved the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia. It was he who named a tree common in Australian forests the “tea tree”. When Cook’s fleet arrived in Australia, after a long sailing trip, it appeared that there was a shortage of absolute necessity on board, i.e. tea, which, apart from being a common drink, was used to prevent scurvy.
Cook observed that Aborigines brewed a drink with the leaves of the tree and used it to heal numerous internal and external ailments (e.g. to heal wounds – obviously due to the bioactive ingredients of the essential oil and its main ingredients; terpinen-4-ol and cineol). Although the taste was somehow different, results of the treatment were excellent, and therefore ships’ tea stores were then filled with “tea tree” leaves.
The worldwide success of eucalyptus oil needs no comment. It is everywhere – in medicaments (look for example at Vicks Sinex Aloe/Eucalyptus Nasal Spray, Otrivin by GlaxoSmithKline with essential oils of eucalyptus and mint plus sea water, or the cold/flu inhalation mixture OLBAS with essential oils of eucalyptus 35.45g, mint 35.45g, and cajeput 18,5g in 10 ml bottle).
The most important Australian essential oils – eucalyptus and tea tree – are placed on the top of these as “poisonous”. There is little point or sense in discussing the details of very effective tables and graphs, with statistical data, composed in complicated but in fact useless ways. One figure however should be considered seriously. The authors covered four years of recorded cases with a total number of 4,412 and an annual highest of 1,177. According to the authors, NSWPIC records represented half of Australia and we may easily calculate that with 25 million population it makes 0.004 % of the total population and 0.04% of Australians who admitted using essential oils.
It appears, taking into consideration the work of IFRA, RIFM, GRAS-list etc., that the above mentioned publication does not disclose anything that is unknown to science and safety control authorities. It might be useful to note that 10 years earlier very detailed clinical research was published in Australia3: “Eucalyptus Oil Poisoning in Childhood: 41 Cases in South-East Queensland.” The authors examined 42 cases and in conclusion noted: “Thirty-three children (80%) were entirely asymptomatic. This group included all of the four children who were reported to have ingested more than 30 ml of eucalyptus oil. Only two of the remaining children had symptoms or clinical signs on presentation to hospital. No child required advanced life-support. There was no correlation between the amount of eucalyptus oil taken and the presence of symptoms. If the estimated volume ingested is large, or symptoms are evident, on presentation at hospital gastrointestinal decontamination should lead to a good outcome with few clinical problems. Eucalyptus oil may be a less toxic compound than has previously been believed.” This information was not however mentioned in the publication we are discussing here.
To give a general picture of the poisoning, we can use paracetamol as an example– a commonly used medicament. As presented in a paper entitled, “Paracetamol Poisoning‐Related Hospital Admissions and Deaths in Australia, 2004–2017” within a very detailed analysis of cases recorded in all sources in Australia, the authors present the following data: “Australian poisons centres received 13,322 calls regarding paracetamol in 2015, United States poisons centres received more than 100,000 paracetamol‐related calls and recorded 313 deaths in 2016, while in the United Kingdom at least 80,000 people present to hospital with paracetamol overdoses each year, and there are 150–250 deaths”. The figure for Australia makes up ca. 0.05% of the population. It is 10 times more than for “poisonous” essential oils.
There are many other publications concerning toxicity in daily used products and food. Many of them may cause severe illness and in worst cases death. For example, according to S. Kuyendall’s “Encyclopedia of Public Health” 5 “Laundry pods attractive for children because they resemble candy. Digestion may result in adverse effects such as gastrointestinal and respiratory complications, altered mental status and in most serious cases death.”
Apart from toxicity by digestion of essential oils (see below) there are problems with allergic reactions. As far as essential oils are concerned it is common knowledge that circa 2% of the human population is allergic to certain ingredients in essential oils 6. As an example, one can consider strawberries 7. About 1.5% of the population in Northern Europe and up to 16% in Italy are affected by tomato allergies. Around 30% of those who are allergic to birch pollen also report allergenic reactions to strawberry fruits. This is only an example. One can present hundreds of similar examples, figures, data and so on. All of that can be combined, elaborated and, with some effort, lead to any desired conclusion 8.
One can imagine “scientific research work” on taxi traffic through New York Times Square. The number of taxis per hour of the day, per day of the week, per week of the month, and month of the year. The direction in and out of all of the streets passing the square, the numbers of passengers, their sex, age, skin colour and their reason for travel. All of the data can be presented in a number of tables and graphs. All of it can lead to the conclusion that there is too much unnecessary traffic which creates air pollution, leading to health problems and ultimately cases of people dying. Finally, one can say that thanks to Coronavirus and restrictions imposed, the problem can be solved.
The paper and web information discussed here are based on totally the wrong idea – the internal use of essential oils. That, except those essential oils which are used as active ingredients in medicaments, and related products or ingredients of food flavours is strictly forbidden. In aromatherapy, which is based on essential oils by definition, it is out of question. Therefore, ingestion of even small quantities of pure essential oils, either intentionally or by mistake, can lead to the conclusion of their negative or toxic properties. It is very difficult to verify why a serious journal published such a paper, as a base for a ridiculous web page note. Was it a mistake or a manipulation for a purpose? If the latter is true, then why?
The only answer to the question is “What you have to know is: read labels, instructions, warnings etc., check INCI names and the content of what you buy, and use only as directed by a doctor, pharmacist or professional physiotherapist.”
It has been known for centuries that:
“Any substance can be a poison; it is only a question of quantity”.
- Kristenbella AYR Lee, Harnett J.E, Cairns R., The Medical Journal of Australia, 2020, 22(3) 132-133
- McRae M., https://www.sciencealert.com/essential-oil-poisoning-is-on-the-rise-this-is-the-science-you-need-to-know
- Webb N.J, Pitt W.R., J Paediatr Child Health. 1993, 29(5) 368-71.
- Cairns R., et al., Med. J. Aust, 2019; 211 (5) 218-223.
- Kuyendall S., “Encyclopedia of Public Health” ABC 2018
- Brud W.S., SOFW-Journal, 2012, 138, (8) 54-56
- Technical University of Munich (TUM). ScienceDaily. 13 July 2018. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180713111957.htm
- Brud W.S. International Seminar on Essential Oils, ISEO 2019, Vienna
The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of IFEAT.