Toxic oils

Cases of poisoning from essential oil exposure are frequent and increasing in Australia, new research reveals

A study published this week shows there were 4,412 calls made to the NSW Poisons Information Centre between June 2014 and June 2018 that related to essential oil exposure.

The calls increased over 16% between 2014-15 and 2017-18, the study reveals. Most were accidental exposures or the result of therapeutic errors where people mistook essential oils for liquid pharmaceuticals (most commonly cough liquids).

More than half (63%) of the cases involved a child under fifteen years of age.

In a 2017 survey, 11% of respondents said they had used essential oils for medicinal purposes in the previous year. Almost one in five (18%) said pharmacists were there major source of advice, while another 10% said it was a GP. Around 43% of oils were self‐prescribed.

There were 105 cases (2.4%) reported to the Poisons Information Centre that involved misinformed misuse (eg. intended ingestion of essential oils with therapeutic intent).

The essential oils most frequently involved in poisonings were eucalyptus (2049, 46.4%), tea tree (749, 17.0%), lavender (271, 6.1%), clove (179, 4.1%), and peppermint oils (154, 3.5%).

Reported eucalyptus oil exposures were more frequent during winter months (June–August: 54.3 calls per month; 38.7 calls per month in other seasons).

In total, 365 of the callers (8.3%) were referred to a hospital. Another 363 (8.2%) of the calls had actually originated from a hospital setting.

“We found that essential oil exposures are frequent in Australia, and that more than half involve children,” say the authors from the University of Sydney and the Poisons Information Centre.

“Exposures are increasing in number, perhaps reflecting increased use… and indicating the need for public education.

“Safe storage is important, and we recommend that essential oils be kept separate from oral medications to prevent therapeutic errors.”

They add that flow restrictors and child-resistant closures on containers would be desirable, but were not currently required.

“Containers are only required to have such closures when the essential oil volume exceeds 15ml. As severe toxicity can be caused by as little as 5ml, this is inadequate for protecting children,” the authors add.

The research was published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

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  1. Mark Webb

    It’s not the aromatherapy professionals – its the sheer volume of excessive marketing & mis-information upon social media by some MLM resellers who have misinformed the general public and that appear to have been spreading unsafe usage ideas etc. This type of problem has been going on for many many years, the incidents however have dramatically increased in the past 5 years with the rise of the network marketing of essential oils within Australia.

    Most common poisoning instances are from eucalyptus oil in non-flow restricted bottles which is idiotic given that you can fit flow restriction to 25 and even 50ml bottles, companies just choose to not do so.

  2. Michael Khoo

    Fluted poison bottles and childproof lids would be a help

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