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A swig of hydrogen peroxide — promoted by alternative-health devotees — can kill you

Christopher Swain, a clean-water activist, gargles with hydrogen peroxide after swimming in the Gowanus Canal in New York City as part of an Earth Day event in 2015. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Hundreds of people have become severely ill and at least five have died after consuming high-concentration hydrogen peroxide that some people take as an additive to their diets, according to a new study.

The colorless, caustic liquid quickly releases a bubble of oxygen that can find its way into a blood vessel, blocking blood flow to the heart, the brain, the lungs or other parts of the body, according to the research, which was published this week in the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Alternative health sites promote consumption of a few drops of high-concentration hydrogen peroxide heavily diluted in water or another liquid as a treatment for a wide variety of ailments. However, no scientific evidence supports those claims, said Benjamin Hatten, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who led the group that conducted the study.

Hydrogen peroxide was responsible for 294 emergencies in the United States between 2001 and 2011, most often after people mistook it for water in an unlabeled container and consumed a mouthful or more, according to Hatten’s research. The five deaths included a 35-year-old woman who suffered brain and heart damage. Fifteen people were permanently disabled. In all, 41 people suffered blockages from the gas bubble released in their systems, the research found.

“There’s not a good scientific basis for this,” Hatten said. “At best it’s harmless, and at worst people can die from it.”

When an embolism does occur, the only treatment is to put the person in a hyperbaric chamber — as doctors do for divers who contract “the bends” by surfacing too fast. (In that situation, a bubble of nitrogen is released from the bloodstream and also risks causing an embolism.) But the treatment doesn’t always work, Hatten said.

The hydrogen peroxide that many people keep in their homes to wash scrapes and cuts is only 3 to 5 percent concentrated and generally causes no harm when ingested. But at concentrations of 10 percent or more — as sold by some health supplement sites and by hobby stores for use in backyard rocket fuel — the liquid can be extremely dangerous if swallowed, Hatten said.

He urged anyone who insists on consuming hydrogen peroxide to keep it in a clearly labeled container or dye it a bright color to prevent other people from accidentally drinking it.

“I’m sure it would cut [accidents] down dramatically if you make it lime green,” Hatten said. “Then people would take a big pause.”