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Posted August 7, 2021

Poppy Seed Tea, Unwashed Poppy Seeds Pose Risk of Overdose, Death

Unwashed poppy seeds can be contaminated with significant, even dangerous levels of opioid compounds that can cause serious adverse effects, overdose and death.

Intentional exposure to unwashed poppy seeds, particularly through brewing tea with unwashed poppy seeds, is a growing problem in the U.S., according to a study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (Greenthal, Clin Toxicol (Phila) 2021). Based on cases reported to the FDA as well as the American Association of Poison Control Centers' National Poison Data System, 591 reports of exposure, 18 overdoses, and 7 deaths have been linked with exposure or consumption of poppy seeds in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. The majority of cases involved young males in their late teens to mid-twenties and often involved intentional consumption of poppy seeds or tea brewed from unwashed poppy seeds. Among the most commonly reported symptoms in these cases were drowsiness (24.9%), vomiting (22.8%), and nausea (21.2%) and respiratory depression (12.4%).

Poppy seeds, commonly used in baked goods, or to make tea, do not naturally contain the opioid compounds found in the latex (the milky white fluid within the pod) of the plant. However, seed coats can become contaminated with trace amounts during harvesting, and some poppy seed producers deliberately cut the poppy pod before they are ripened to allow the latex to seep into the seed coats and increase the opioid content of the seed coats. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has warned that unwashed poppy seeds may contain significant, and even dangerous levels of opioid compounds such as morphine, codeine and thebaine. The DEA also stated that contaminated poppy seeds can be considered controlled substances.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, along with families that have been affected by contaminated poppy seeds, have started a petition to the FDA asking the agency to establish limits for maximum thresholds of opioid compound on poppy seeds and to conduct testing of poppy seeds that are imported to the U.S. The petition is available online on the Center for Science in the Public Interest's website.