Vol.1, No.9

How many scoville units does it take to kill a person?

An overview on determining how many Scoville Units of capsaicin it takes to cause death.

Eating a hot chili
Capsaicin is a chemical found in plants, particularly peppers. The Scoville Unit scale measures the units of capsaicin in individual peppers, ranging from 0-100 in sweet bell peppers to 200,000-500,000 in habanera peppers. The number of Scoville Units in pure capsaicin is 16,000,000.

By determining the number of Scoville Units in individual recipes, hot sauce manufacturers can use these numbers to relate the heat value of the product. From mild chili sauces to those known as death sauces, are available in most super markets.

For people unused to the extremely hot sauces, they may experience fainting, vomiting, nausea and shortness of breath along with a severe burning sensation. People who have underlying conditions of heart trouble or lung disease should avoid using the super hot forms of hot sauce.

Pepper spray is used by law enforcement and many lay people as a form of personal defense. The primary ingredient in Mace and other pepper sprays is a diluted form of capsaicin. Often, the media will report the death of a pepper sprayed victim. Autopsy reports will show that the victim died, not because of the pepper spray, but as a result of the effects of the spray, such as respiratory failure or heart attack.

Researchers have concluded that capsaicin, in the form of sauces and sprays have little risk of dangerous side effects. The human body quickly reacts to the capsaicin, expelling excess in the urine.

Another study, done in 1980, concluded that a dose of pure capsaicin would have to be approximately 13 grams to be lethal to a 150 pound person.

Another study, published in Drug and Chemical Toxicology, showed that for a person of average weight, in good health, would have to consume close to two quarts of Tabasco Sauce to be rendered unconscious.

Since pure capsaicin can only be found in laboratory settings, it is relatively safe to conclude that neither pepper spray nor the hottest hot sauce can be fatal for persons of otherwise good health. Although the immediate effects of either spray or ingested peppers can be overwhelming for the individual at the time.

The general rule of thumb is to build your tolerance to the burning effects of capsaicin slowly. Start with milder sauces and gradually incorporate the hotter sauces into your menu. Many of the so-called 'death' sauces are intended to be used in very small amounts, sometimes no more than a drop, as a flavor and heat additive only. The same rule applies when adding individual hot peppers to your dishes; start with small amounts and work up.

If you are choosing a pepper spray for personal self-defense, it is recommended using a product with no more than 10% capsaicin solution. This would be a product, similar to that used by law enforcement, which would momentarily blind, or otherwise immobilize your assailant, allowing you time to get away.

The bottom line is that you as a consumer will probably never be able to cause death from capsaicin overdose. If you ingest some food, taste some sauce, or are the victim of a spray, for a moment you may think you're going to die but in all likelihood you will recover fairly quickly.