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 ...

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 liqueur.

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.

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 POISONOUS LIQUIDS!

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 writings:



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 buzz.

There, that should keep my Crack Legal Team happy. Mike, Lee, Bubba ... have another bourbon.

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:

Dear Chuck,

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 perhaps disingenuous.

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.

This gets better and better.

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."

He continued,

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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Chuck Taggart   (e-mail chuck)