MINNEAPOLIS - Over the weekend, Hennepin County Medical Center doctors worked swiftly to save a man's life, treating him for an emerging and deadly risk, the ingestion of high-concentration hydrogen peroxide.
The HCMC Center for Hyperbaric Medicine has treated patients in six cases in a little over a year, and has seen two cases in the past two months for what’s known as “food grade hydrogen peroxide” poisoning.
The 35 percent concentrated peroxide is often used in commercial settings to store or prepare food, but some believe in diluting the solution as an alternative medicine therapy for health benefits.
“There is some thought in some groups that it might be a general panacea things that can help with inflammation, any sort of general illness,” said Dr. Ann Arens, HCMC physician of emergency medicine and toxicology.
Not to be confused with the 3 percent peroxide you'd buy at a drug store, the doctor says this version is often ingested accidentally because it can be mistaken for water.
Dr. Arens says food grade hydrogen solution is not scientifically proven with no medical use, and is anything but safe.
“The people who have ingested this are generally in so much pain they have to have a breathing tube in, they can have holes in their esophagus and stomach,” said Dr. Arens.
In the most recent case at HCMC, first handled by the Minnesota Poison Center, a man was working outside on a hot summer day, and came inside to find a sports drink bottle similar to the bottle he had previously used. When he took a big drink, he had no idea someone else in his home was storing the concentrated hydrogen peroxide in the bottle. He experienced immediate pain.
“So when you swallow just a little bit of this food grade hydrogen peroxide, quite a bit comes out into your intestine and into your stomach and get absorbed and cause bad things,” said Dr. Stephen Hendriksen, HCMC physician of Hyperbaric Medicine.
Doctors say two ounces of the potent peroxide releases six liters - or two milk jugs full - of gas into your system, causing air bubbles that can travel to your brain or heart, specifically putting patients at the risk for an embolism.
“And cause stroke-like symptoms, what hyperbaric oxygen does is shrink those bubbles,” said Dr. Hendriksen. “Because we put them in the hyperbaric chamber, and we put them under pressure. You, as a patient, are breathing 100 percent oxygen under pressure, usually 45 to 60 feet below sea level.”
But after the latest cases, HCMC doctors stress the best alternative of all - prevention.
“Talk to your doctor, make sure you educate yourself about what these products are, is the most important thing,” said Dr. Arens. “Keep anything that can cause poisoning in a well-labeled bottle, in the original bottle, of course out of reach of other food products and out of reach of children.”
A recent study released this past Febuary warned consumers about the risks of ingesting high-concentration hydrogen peroxide.
Researchers for the study, published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, looked at 294 cases of peroxide ingestion over a 10-year period.
They found that a large number of cases where patients swallowed high-concentration peroxide resulted in critical illness, some with continued disability or death.
Unintentional hydrogen peroxide exposure is common.
In 2015, the American Association of Poison Control Centers said in its annual report that there were 7,257 cases of peroxide exposure reported in that year, and of those 92 percent of them unintentional.