My Favorite Drug

I love coffee, but I’m not a big coffee drinker.  On average I probably consume a cup of coffee every week or two.  Why don’t I drink it more often?  For a few reasons: First, I’m too jumpy/jittery/nervous to begin with and I don’t need this stuff making it worse, second, it tends to upset my stomach if I haven’t had a meal beforehand, and third, while I like regular coffee, the stuff that I really love are those insane fru-fru coffee drinks that you can only get at specialty shops for five or six bucks — which seems like a waste of money to me.  As you may have guessed, at this very moment, I have an overwhelming urge for a vanilla latte and so, in lieu of that, I have decided to submit this post.

Anyway, as most of you know, coffee is a horticultural crop, and so are most of the other sources from which most of us obtain our (legal) chemical stimulants like chocolate and tea.  What most people don’t realize is that the stimulants in chocolate and tea are actually somewhat different than caffeine.  Chocolate does contain some caffeine, but its major stimulant is the closely related theobromine (which doesn’t actually have any bromine in it…).  Tea (which also has very low amounts of caffeine), on the other hand contains the stimulant theophylline which is, again, closely related to, but not the same as, caffeine.

What blows me away about caffeine is how toxic it is.  If caffeine were a pesticide it would need to be labeled as category 2 (there are 4 classes with 1 being the most toxic).  Its LD50 (in other words, the amount of this chemical that, if fed to a person, would have a 50% chance of killing him/her) is estimated at about 75 milligrams per pound that a person weighs.  According to Starbucks website, one of their tall vanilla lattes contains about that much caffeine, and so you could assume that a 150 pound person could kill themselves by drinking about 150 lattes (or 150 of the smaller cups of espresso from which the coffee is made).  Additionally, though findings are inconsistent, caffeine has been linked to certain cancers.  The current thinking is that it may affect hormone levels in the body which, in turn, influence hormone related cancers like breast cancer, etc.  This research is far from conclusive, but it is concerning.

OK, so here’s the thing that’s interesting to me.  There is a small but real contingent of people out there who want to ban the herbicide 2,4 D (I picked 2,4 D randomly – I could have picked Round-up,  Sevin, or any other pesticide – but I was thinking of summer, and so 2,4 D, the most commonly used turf herbicide, is what I chose).  I’m no fan of 2,4 D and would love to see it used less frequently than it currently is, but it is a useful herbicide, particularly in the production of grassy crops (like corn).  In lawns its overuse borders on the insane.

Opponents of 2,4 D would like to see it gone, in large part, because of its toxicity and potential to cause cancer.  And, indeed, there are some studies that show that 2,4 D has the potential to cause cancer, though these findings are inconsistent and ultimately inconclusive.  Additionally, in terms of 2,4 D’s LD50, it’s about 170 milligrams per pound that a person weighs – over two times LESS toxic than caffeine.  I’m not going to bother figuring out how much 2,4 D would be in an average glass of 2,4 D because, well, I’ve never been served a cup of 2,4 D before and hopefully I never will.  (If you’re curious as to how much 2,4 D would be in a cup of spray if you scooped it right out of the spray tank — then about 50 mg is a good estimate though it could be higher or lower depending on a lot of factors).

Anyway, this leads me to a ton of further questions, the most important of which is, without doubt, do anti-pesticide activists who fear the health dangers posed by 2,4 D drink coffee?

For those of you interested in these types of questions I encourage you to look over this article:  It is posted on the website of a conservative group (which will probably alienate some of you and make others happy) – but it was originally published a number of years ago in a well respected journal and is one of my favorite articles ever in terms of getting the old brain thinking (Please don’t get the idea that I agree with everything in the article – I do not).  Bruce Ames, one of the authors, is what we call in academia a “heavy hitter” and so, even if you don’t agree with what he says, his words are well worth reading.

13 thoughts on “My Favorite Drug”

  1. Caffeine is my legal drug of choice, so I must defend it! Actually, caffeine quantity in tea and coffee, like so much in life, depends. If you drink 8 oz. of a “black” tea, you get 40-120 mg. of caffeine. If you drink a Starbucks Vanilla Latte 16oz., you get 150 mg. Not much of a difference from the high end of the black tea caffeine level. You use the same amount of coffee to make an 8 oz. cup of drip coffee as you do to make an espresso shot, but your cup will be 95-200 mg. of caffeine while the shot will only be 58-75. The darker the roast, generally speaking, the less caffeine. If you criminalize caffeine, only criminals will have caffeine. And they’ll have the advantage–they’ll be awake. All numbers courtesy of the Mayo Clinic –

  2. I have another question. What is the “zero tolerance” policy for anti-pesticide activists on head lice? Shave your granddaughter bald? The most popular over the counter medication is a 1% Permethrin/PBO “synthetic chemical” formulation. Directions say to shampoo it in (an area of less than 1 square foot), leave it on for 10 minutes and then rinse it out. This is acceptable for children, mind you. Mosquito control operations – the target of many no-spray activists, use a 3% Permethrin/PBO combination at the maximum label rate of 3.0 ounces per acre. There are 43,560 square feet in an acre. Do the math, people! /Rant off.

    In all seriousness, the Pesticide Education folks – many from Extension – have not done a very good job educating the general public about keeping the risks of pesticides in perspective, leaving the hyperbole of the activists as the main message that gets out there. I hope that changes.

  3. Not to shunt the discussion off on too wide of a tangent, but if anyone drank 150 lattes they’d probably die from hyponatremia (water intoxication) just from the volume of water in those lattes.

  4. Looks similar to the stuff we have in Pennsylvania. The issue, to me, is more a matter of directly countering the misinformation that the activists promote. Do a simple google search on permethrin, for example. Wikipedia (the first entry), in its first paragraph, talks about its toxicity to dogs and cats. The second entry is an activist site calling for its restricted use, with all kinds of scary words and statistics. I sometimes get the impression that our science-based land grant Universities are too gun-shy to counter these folks; to give the public the data to make informed decisions and foster critical thinking to keep the risks in perspective, so cheers to Professor Gillman for doing so. I’m teaching a general public IPM workshop at the end of March (Can I Wash My Dishes with Insecticidal Soap?) and will include the caffeine LD 50 data as a part of it. So, thanks. As an interesting, somewhat relevant side note (I’m into bees, too) check out this recent article from Science Daily: Are Bees Addicted to Caffeine and Nicotine?

  5. I should have mentioned that its one of my handouts for the class. And we bought your book for the County Office here. Apologies if I came across as too critical.

  6. Oh, no, Ray, you are exactly right. I think that’s part of the reason the four of us were so excited to do this blog. Too many academics are happy not rocking the boat, even when the rocking can help move the boat forward! (As an aside, I did a whole chapter on Scientific Literacy in the new Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens book – it’s something that’s not taught enough in any venue.)

  7. This reminds me of a conundrum I found myself in not too long ago. A co-worker was selling his vehicle at an absurdly low price and I considered buying it for work transport. The problem was, a full bottle of Round-Up had spilled in the back of the car and saturated the carpeting and the back seat as well. All of the carpeting and padding had to be torn out and the seats were all steam cleaned, but the smell remained. Ultimately, I did not purchase the car, but the question at the time was, “Just how toxic is all of that Round-Up in the car?” I never fully satisfied my curiosity on that one. Any thoughts?

  8. Here’s a University of California at Berkeley study with the same sort of information as quoted in Professor Gillman’s link to a conservative site. Fair and balanced!>March 02, 2010
    Paul WesterveltOne of my all-time favorite pesticide related quotes came from an IPM professor at VT. He’s doing an extension gig somewhere and starts talking about how safe Round Up is. One of the attendees stood up in the back and shouted out, “Round Up killed my dog!” Professor says “Sir, the only way Round Up could have killed your dog is if you beat it death with the jug.”

    I just love that 🙂

  9. One of my all-time favorite pesticide related quotes came from an IPM professor at VT. He’s doing an extension gig somewhere and starts talking about how safe Round Up is. One of the attendees stood up in the back and shouted out, “Round Up killed my dog!” Professor says “Sir, the only way Round Up could have killed your dog is if you beat it death with the jug.”

    I just love that 🙂

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