Don't Try This At Home, Kids
On Thursday, September 18, 1997, I received an email from a very nice lady, congratulating me for
my web site having been mentioned in that day's newly-published edition of
The New England Journal of Medicine. She said,
"In case you didn't know, some dumb-ass read about absinthe while visiting The Gumbo Pages
and decided to drink wormwood oil to get high!"
This was perhaps the most astonishing email I have ever received.
I did a little web searching and found the NEJM's web site -- lo and
behold, there it was: page 825 of the September 18, 1997 issue contained a brief
abstract for an article entitled
Poison On Line -- Acute Renal Failure Caused by Oil of Wormwood
Purchased Through the Internet, by Paul L. Kimmel, Jeremy B. Soule and Steven D. Weisbord.
If I may quote:
Myoglobin released during muscle injury can precipitate renal failure.
There are many causes of rhabdomyolysis, including excessive exercise,
"crush" injuries, seizures, infections ... licit and illicit drugs,
including ethanol. Intoxication with the liqueur absinthe (derived from
oil of wormwood) has not been associated with rhabdomyolysis or acute
renal failure. We report the case of a patient who was hospitalized after
drinking essential oil of wormwood purchased through the Internet ...
The man recovered after 8 days in the hospital, and was clear of the
toxic effects of his little escapade after 17 days. And the story made it
onto CNN, too.
A 31-year-old man was found at home by his father in an agitated,
incoherent and disorientated state ... In the emergency room, he was
lethargic but belligerent. His mental status improved after treatment
with haloperidol, and he reported finding a description of the liqueur
absinthe at a site on the World Wide Web entitled (at the time)
"What Is Absinthe?"
Later, the man obtained one of the ingredients described on the Internet,
essential oil of wormwood. The oil was purchased electronically from a
commercial provider of essential oils used in aromatherapy, a form of
alternative medicine. Several hours before becoming ill, he drank
approximately 10 ml of the essential oil, assuming it was absinthe
All I have to say is ... *boggle*.
Okay kids, do I have to put some obvious disclaimers on the site? Don't
play in traffic, don't tease growling grizzly bears, don't leap off the
top of a 44-story skyscraper and ... DON'T GO AROUND ORDERING AND DRINKING
Absinthe is a distilled spirit containing many herbs, not entirely unlike
spirits like Chartreuse. Wormwood has traditionally been one of the many
herbs used in the maceration and distillation of absinthe. Essential oil
of wormwood is NOT absinthe, and is poisonous. In fact, many concentrated
essential oils are poisonous; you'll do almost as much damage drinking
essential oil of coriander, for instance. Essential oils are not meant to
be consumed internally.
The original article on the
site, rewritten by me and based on an original article by Vicki Richman, talks
about how absinthe was banned supposedly because of the deleterious and
toxic effects of the ingredient thujone, the aromatic hydrocarbon found in
oil of wormwood and which exists in small amounts in the liqueur. It
seems that absinthe got a bad rap, mostly due to the fact that the poisons
that existed in some versions of it were due to unscrupulous
manufacturers who used toxic chemicals for color, and to the fact that if
you drink 20-25 glasses a day of any spirit containing 70% alcohol, you're
going to go nuts anyway. Still, people seemed to seize on this whole
wormwood thing, even though it's been determined that most of the
so-called "effects" of the spirit were due to the balance of the many
herbs contained within, plus the staggering amount of alcohol. Dopey
people have no idea that pure essential oil of wormwood has nothing
to do with the spirit known now and in history as "absinthe". They think
you can get high off of pure wormwood, as if the terms "horribly bitter
and unpalatable" and "neurotoxin" weren't enough of a warning. You
wouldn't think someone would go and buy the pure form of the
ingredient and drink it, trying to get high ... would you?
Now I've heard almost everything.
Lesson for today, kids ... DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME. I don't want to sound like
I'm lecturing anyone, but medicating yourself with toxic substances to
get high, particularly if you don't know what you're doing, is generally a
really bad idea.
Now given the propensity of today's society to abjugate personal
responsiblity for one's actions, it seems that I have to incorporate the
following into my site, lest anyone else get any ideas from my
BRAND SPANKING NEW LEGAL DISCLAIMER
I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR STUPID THINGS YOU DO THAT ARE THE RESULT OF
STUPID IDEAS YOU MIGHT GET WHILE READING THIS WEB SITE!
I am not responsible if you decide to make alligator sauce piquante,
but decide to catch and wrestle the alligators yourself and get eaten alive.
I am not responsible if you decide not to cook your red beans and rice,
but instead to eat the red beans raw and you end up getting violently ill
due to phytohaemagglutinin.
And I am not responsible if you read about a liqueur that was banned in
the United States 85 years ago because it contained a small quantity of a
poisonous ingredient, and then you go trot off and buy a bottle of the
pure, unadulterated poisonous ingredient and drink it to try to get a
There, that should keep my Crack Legal Team happy. Mike, Lee, Bubba ... have
Incidentally, I take issue with the authors of the NEJM article for their
last two sentences: "The essential ingredient in this ancient potion was
purchased using up-to-the-minute technology. Should the medical community
brace itself for future cases of Internet-mediated toxic diseases?"
This is quite alarmist, and yet another case of people who don't understand
the Internet blaming it for nearly everything. This guy could just as
easily have gone to the library to look up an article instead of doing a
web search, and could have gone to the Yellow Pages for a local purveyor
of essential oils instead of ordering it from an online distributor. If
this had happened that way, would Drs. Weisborg, Soule and Kimmel have
blamed the library and the phone book? I'm sorry that the guy got sick,
but he really has no one to blame but himself.
I'd like to thank Claire Rhinehart for bringing this to my attention, and
I'd particularly like to thank Marianne Barra at the
New England Journal of Medicine for sending
me a copy of the article.
Our tale continues ... on Monday, October 6, I got another email, to wit:
This gets better and better.
I am the one who drank the wormwood oil.
At no time in explaining what happened did I refer to your site, nor do
I blame anyone but myself for what happened. I suppose I could have
found a way to sue the company that provided the wormwood oil, but I did
not. So rest at ease.
Dr. Kimmel was supposed to send me a copy of the article he wrote, but
since I did not get it, I decided to browse through the absinthe
listings to get an idea of what "the absinthe community" thinks of what
happened. This is the first time I have done a net search for
"absinthe" since the summer of 1996 and I randomly came across your
page. I am not even certain if I ever saw it in the spring/summer of
1996. I believe you were unlucky to be mentioned, but that is all it is
- bad luck, a subject whereof I know what I speak.
And I agree with you that to blame the Internet is hysterical and
There was no confusion in my mind between wormwood oil and the essential
oil derived from wormwood. My mistake was in being reckless with my
math and taking far too much.
I am sorry for any pain this has caused you.
I was happy to hear from the guy, and glad to know that he's now okay. But
I must raise an eyebrow toward Dr. Kimmel due to the gentleman's assertion
that he never referenced my site in particular to the doctor(s) who wrote the
article. I wrote back to him asking if he had any idea how this could have
happened, and he replied:
I think the reason your site was referred to by Dr. Kimmel had to do
with its name -- "About Absinthe." When I was asked where I found this
information, I'm sure I must have said I found a site "about absinthe."
Thanks for your kind comments. Though I can't yet say I've been
redeemed, at least, psychologically, I feel a little better.
I have some thoughts on all this ...
First, let me repeat -- in the nicest way possible, now that this case has a human face --
I think that it was incredibly ill-advised (and yes, stupid) to drink wormwood oil. Don't do it,
ever. In fact, I generally do not recommend dosing oneself with anything in an
attempt to get high, particularly when you do now know exactly what it does.
Secondly, I'd like to address Dr. Kimmel. Hey podna ... unless you were absolutely
certain that this man read my article in particular, you've got a hell of a lot of nerve
attributing what he allegedly read to me and my site. I've received quite a lot of unwanted
notoriety due to this, and I'm not happy about it. I'll be writing a letter to
the editors of the NEJM to state this as well. If you're going to write scientific papers
for journals of the caliber of the NEJM, I suggest that you get your attributions correct and
do some more precise research.
And would you believe ... even since this incident was publicized, and even after
reading this commentary on it, I've had a handful of dumbshits writing to me
wanting me to tell them how much wormwood oil they can "safely" put in their
bathtub absinthe, "or should I use a tincture?" asked one idiot from
Canada. How many times do I have to say it? DON'T WRITE TO ME ASKING ME
ABOUT THIS STUFF! Wormwood oil is poisonous! If you want real, properly
made absinthe, just go find some and buy it and drink it.
Jeezus, aren't you people happy with plain old booze and pot anymore?
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