Study finds energy drinks can lead to serious health issues in young children

Adverse effects include seizures and irregular heartbeats

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Thousands of children younger than 6 have experienced adverse effects after consuming energy drinks, with some suffering serious heart and neurological symptoms, a report out Monday says, and there are calls for Washington to do something about it.

The study, presented at an American Heart Association scientific meeting in Chicago, looked at three years of data collected from all 55 poison control centers around the U.S. between October 2010 and September 2013.

There were more than 10,000 events that involved exposure to energy drinks, including 5,156 reports involving a single product with identifiable contents. Of those, more than 2,000 involved children under the age of 6, a finding that boosts pressure for tighter regulation of the drinks by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Energy drinks have no place in pediatric diets,’’ Dr. Steven Lipshultz, the study’s lead author and head of the pediatrics department at Wayne State University and chief pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, said in a press statement. He said he became interested in the topic after noticing as early as 2007 that an increasing number of children were coming to this hospital’s emergency room after consuming energy drinks.

Lipshultz said there needs to be greater awareness of the dangers to kids among parents and caregivers. “The children didn’t go to a store a buy it, they found it in the refrigerator or left by a parent or older sibling.”

Among all age groups, severe outcomes were more than twice as likely when the energy drink also contained alcohol. The FDA banned the sale of combination alcohol-energy drinks in November 2010, and the number of problems attributed to those types of products did appear to decline over time in the study data. But researchers noted people continue to mix the drinks on their own.

Many of the cases presented involved serious side effects including seizures, irregular heartbeats, high blood pressure and liver damage, researchers said.

Although manufacturers insist their drinks are not much stronger than coffee and that they don’t market to children, watchdog groups and some lawmakers continue to call for labels that spell out caffeine content and alert consumers to possible health risks.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and several colleagues have been pressing the FDA for tighter regulation of the drinks and last year called on manufacturers to end all marketing of their products toward children or teens. A spokeswoman for Durbin said he continues to await the results of an ongoing safety review of the drinks by FDA.

Lipshultz said energy drinks may contain pharmaceutical-grade caffeine along with additives that may contain even more of the stimulant that can cause the heart to race and blood pressure to rise.

He said caffeine poisoning can occur at levels higher than 400 milligrams a day in adults; above 100 mg a day in adolescents and at thresholds greater than 2.5 mg per 2.2 pounds of body weight in children under the age of 12. A typical cup of brewed coffee holds 100 to 150 mg.

The FDA has been reviewing scientific studies and adverse event reports as it considers setting thresholds for caffeine, but for now simply offers “guidance” that 400 mg is not generally associated with dangerous effects in healthy adults,. The only product limit is that cola-type soft drinks contain no more than 71 mg in a 12 ounce serving.

Lipshultz said some energy drinks have been found to contain up to 400 mg of caffeine per serving. But he noted that many of the drinks also contain blends of other supplements like taurine, ginseng and other Chinese herbal products and guarana, that may also contain caffeine or enhance its effects.

Both Lipshultz’ team and a report on energy drinks from the World Health Organization last month said too little is known about the combined effects of such products.

Among the leading critics of the drinks has been the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based watchdog group that’s petitioned the FDA to require warning labels on energy drinks spelling out possible health threats.

“Energy drinks are not appropriate drinks for kids. At best, they are dye-laden sugar bombs without any nutritional value and these new data, like other case reports, show that they could be dangerous to kids,” said Laura MacCleery, chief regulatory attorney for the center. She added that FDA should imposed the same caffeine limit on the drinks that it uses for sodas.

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