Health officials in Australia are warning about the dangers of having large amounts of poppy seeds after almost 20 people fell sick.

Nineteen people have gone to emergency departments across the country recently following the consumption of home-brewed poppy seed tea. There has been one case of cardiac arrest and two people are in intensive care.

Some patients reported the poppy seed tea had an unusual dark brown color and bitter taste. 

Poppy seeds are used to make tea by washing or soaking large quantities to remove the residual coating. A large quantity of unwashed poppy seeds is required to make the tea. Patients reported using between 120 grams and 1 kilogram of seeds.

New South Wales (NSW) Health said at least eight people in the state went to the hospital with severe poisoning soon after ingestion. Symptoms usually appear within hours and include seizures, severe stomach pain, and muscle spasms, cramps, or stiffness.

Suspected source revealed
Preliminary investigations suggest that high levels of a naturally occurring chemical in the raw poppy seeds may be a factor, which must be well-cooked to be destroyed.

Clinical presentations point to thebaine (an opioid alkaloid) toxicity. It is possible poppy seeds currently available in supermarkets may have a higher thebaine content than usual, however other causes have not been excluded. It is not possible to tell which poppy seeds have a high thebaine content by looking at the seeds, said health officials.

There have been no cases of poisoning in people who have eaten poppy seeds as part of baked food products.

Poisons information centers across the country can provide more information about what to do in suspected cases of poppy seed poisoning.

Darren Roberts, medical director of the NSW Poisons Information Centre, said consuming large quantities of this chemical in poppy seeds can be dangerous.

“We are urging anyone who has had large quantities of poppy seeds, for example as a drink, and who experiences any unusual and severe symptoms to seek immediate medical attention by visiting their nearest emergency department,” he said. 

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