Essential Oil Safety-An Almost Tragic Mistake

This post is a cautionary tale about essential oil safety. I debated with myself about writing this post. I made a stupid and totally avoidable blunder that could have ended very badly. This was a few years ago now but I wanted to include it here because of the significance of the warning when using essential oils.

It is embarrassing to say the least. But the story shows how not paying attention to details with essential oils could be harmful. I felt lucky that I am was not writing this post from a hospital bed. I wrote this on Christmas morning in 2017.

The Morning Begins

It is Christmas morning and I awoke early to start the day. As usual, I started a pot of coffee. I rarely turn on the lights. I simply open the blinds and let the light from the dawning day into the kitchen. This time of year it is still pretty dark at 7am. But there is usually enough light for me to start the coffee before I look in on the news of the day on my phone.

The Blunder Begins

The next step in my morning routine is to get a glass of water and drop in 3 drops of Copaiba essential oil. You can read all about the benefits of Copaiba essential oil in the sidebar beside this article or in my blog post about it.

I have all my essential oils stored on a shelf in my office and they are arranged alphabetically so they are easy to find when I am looking for a specific oil.

So which oil do you think is right next to the Copaiba oil in the alphabetic arrangement? If you guessed that I don’t have any oils that start with a “D” and the next one would start with an “E” you would be correct.

The oil that starts with “E” that is right next to the Copaiba oil is Eucalyptus! For those who don’t understand the significance of this, Eucalyptus is extremely toxic when swallowed. It can cause seizures within 15 min of ingestion and can be fatal if swallowed.

So I grabbed the bottle of what I thought was Copaiba oil and walked to the kitchen. This was the first mistake in ignoring essential oil safety guidelines.

The Mistakes Compound

When I worked in health care we would do a root cause analysis whenever a mistake was identified. It was usually a set of wrong decisions or adverse events that led to a mistake.

When I was doing private pilot training we learned that there is normally a chain of mistakes and wrong decisions leading to an aviation accident. The same can be said for what led to my close call.

When I got to the kitchen with the oil that I thought was Copaiba I still didn’t turn on the lights. The bottles look the same and are the same size. The only difference is the name on the label. This was the second mistake in ignoring essential oil safety guidelines

So now we know that that my second mistake in the accident chain was not turning on the light and double-checking the label.

My Nose Saved Me

My normal process is to place a small amount of water in a glass, add 3 drops of Copaiba oil and swallow the whole thing in one shot. Thankfully, my nose caught something strange before I swallowed. The smell of Eucalyptus!

I was able to catch myself before I swallowed, and I panicked and spit the water containing the oil into the sink, then flushed my mouth repeatedly with water to get rid of any oil that might have contacted the membranes in my mouth. At least I was aware enough of essential oil safety and Eucalyptus oil in particular to know to rinse my mouth due to the possibility some might absorb through my mucus membranes.

Why This Could Have Been A Tragedy

Eucalyptus oil is one of the most poisonous of all the essential oils when taken internally. It can result in seizures, abdominal pain, vomiting, Central Nervous System depression, drowsiness, dizziness, and coma. The lethal dose can be as small as 0.05ml-0.5ml per kg.

This is why essential oils safety and proper storage is a must. The lethal doses are much lower for children. Accidental poisoning of children with Eucalyptus oil can lead to coma and death.

I tell you this not to scare you away from using essential oils, but to stress that essential oils are powerful and must be used with safety in mind.

Aftermath and Assessment

Let’s look at how this near-miss could have been avoided:

By assuming I had the right bottle, I used a look-alike bottle that contained a totally different oil.

By not double-checking the label for the contents of the bottle I compounded the error.

I should have noticed the difference in viscosity because the Eucalyptus oil came out of the bottle much easier than the Copiaba oil normally does.

I don’t recommend the use of ANY essential oil internally. Those other sellers out there that tell you it is always safe are not telling you the truth. I only use Copaiba oil internally after much research and decided it was right for me. It is generally considered safe for internal use. It is one of only a VERY few essential oils that are considered safe for use internally.

I decided to write this post because my inattention to detail could have landed me in the hospital this morning. If I had swallowed the oil, I would have taken a trip to the emergency room at the very least. Luckily my nose saved me from my own stupidity.

We all make mistakes, and I admit that mine was probably not enough to be fatal, but it was enough to feel dizziness and faintness for a little while. After a few hours the feeling went away and I feel normal now. But this is a caution to use essential oils safely and never get too comfortable with your knowledge to the point that you assume you are going to be fine.

Double check labels and measures. Safety is something every aromatherapist stresses, but I got complacent when it came to my own use of the oils. Where I would double and triple check everything when creating a blend for a friend, it is just as important that I do that when I am using essential oils for myself.

Luckily I avoided a near catastrophe and didn’t end up in the hospital on Christmas day. And you can be sure in the morning I will be turning on the lights and checking the label of the Copaiba oil bottle.

I feel stupid for making this mistake, but if this story helps avert one accident with essential oils then it is worth my embarrassment.