As It Happens

Man treated for cyanide poisoning from apricot kernels says, 'Selling them like nuts is nuts'

A California man is calling for better warning labels on dried apricot kernels after he was treated for possible cyanide poisoning from a bag he bought at a Montreal health food store.
Brendan Brogan had already eaten about 40 dried apricot kernels when he saw the label on the back of the bag that eating more than a couple can result in cyanide poisoning. (Submitted by Brendan Brogan)

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Brendan Brogan ended up in the hospital getting treated for cyanide poisoning after he decided to treat himself to a "luxury snack" from a Montreal health food store. 

The California man was visiting a friend in Montreal when he popped into a Rachelle-Béry and grabbed a $16 bag of Organic Traditions bitter dried apricot kernels, which are the seeds inside apricot pits.

"My friend that I was staying with is deathly allergic to nuts and he walked by and said, 'I hope you're not eating almonds, they'll kill me,': Brogan told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"And I just looked at him and I said: 'Nope, don't worry about it Mike. These are apricot kernels. No problem. They're not nuts.'"

His friend replied: "You better be careful with those. They're poisonous."

I certainly don't think it should be labelled as a snack of any kind or sold next to almonds and other tasty things that you can eat without dying.- Brendan Brogan

"I said: 'That can't be. I just bought them at the Rachelle-Béry. They're healthy. Look, it says "superfood" on it.'"

Then he read the warning on the back.

"Caution: Do not consume more than 2-3 kernels per day," it read. "Health Canada warns eating too many apricot kernels may cause acute cyanide poisoning."

Brogan started to panic. 

"I had just probably munched down about 40 of them," he said.

CBC Montreal has reached out to both Rachelle-Béry and Organic Traditions but has not yet received a reply.

This bag of Organic Traditions dried bitter apricot kernels on the shelves of a Rachelle-Béry health food store on Ste Catherine Street East in Montreal. (Susan Mckenzie/CBC)

Brogan and his friend immediately called poison control, who advised him to head to the nearest emergency room.

"I learned there that the staff had never heard of apricot poisoning but, when they saw there was a health warning on the bag, they sort of jumped into action right away and admitted me to the hospital and had a doctor check me out probably in 15 minutes," he said.

"I had to drink a huge glass of charcoal soup, which was like eating seven or eight charcoal bricks from a barbecue, and then they tested my blood every couple hours while keeping me under observation."

He was released the next day and said he had a pounding headache akin to a hangover for two days.

Can be deadly 

Brogan got off lucky.

The Health Canada website says: "Bitter apricot kernels naturally contain a compound called amygdalin, which has the potential to release cyanide when ingested by humans. Small amounts of cyanide are detoxified by the human body but high doses can be lethal."

Apricot kernels are the seeds within apricot pits. Bitter ones contain a compound called amygdalin, which can release cyanide when ingested by people. (Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

The company describes the kernels as being jam packed with vitamin B17.

"The legendary Hunza people who were famous for their longevity and robust health valued these nuts very highly," the product description reads.

In 1996, a New York Times reporter travelled to the the Himalayan region of northern Pakistan where the Hunza live and wrote: "The great Hunza secret to old age turned out to be its absence of birth records. The illiterate elders didn't know how old they were, and they tended to overestimate their ages by a decade or two, as I discovered by comparing their recollections with known historical events."

Calls for a ban

Australia banned sales of the product in 2015 after a man died from cyanide poisoning in Melbourne. 

Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society, told the Montreal Gazette Canada should follow suit.

"You don't need a lot of these kernels to do a lot of harm," he said.

A spokesperson for Health Canada could not say whether Canada ever considered a ban, but noted they have required warning labels on all such products since 2009.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is responsible for enforcing those rules, said it has received two complaints of illness and one complaint about mislabelling regarding apricot kernels.

But Brogan says a small label on the back of the package isn't enough.

He said a person could easily feed the kernels to a child without noticing the warning. 

"I think that there should be appropriate warning labels on it — I mean things people can see and perhaps on the front of the bag. And I certainly don't think it should be labelled as a snack of any kind or sold next to almonds and other tasty things that you can eat without dying," he said.

"Selling them like nuts is nuts."


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