In the southern Californian city of Apple Valley last week, a woman was arrested for the death of a two year old child after allegedly poisoning the little girl with chili powder. According to the Los Angeles Times, though the cause of death hasn’t been pinned down for sure—that will have to wait until an autopsy is performed—the toddler, Joileen, died in the hospital after the chilis apparently caused her to have a seizure. The Times says that the woman may have been using the spicy mix as a form of discipline.
As a murder weapon, death-by-chili powder may seem rather bizarre. But, as the analytical chemist who goes by the pseudonym Dr. Rubidium writes on the blog Double X Science, chili powder is loaded full of the chemical capsaicin, and capsaicin can, in high enough concentrations, become a deadly neurotoxin. Chili peppers are part of the capsicum family of plants, and the chemical is what gives them their heat.
According to Dr. Rubidium, eating enough capsaicin does not only deliver a burst of heat but also causes skin and mucus membranes to swell. Too much can cause vomiting and diarrhea. In one case, an 8-month-old died when eating red peppers gave him a heart attack.
According to the Times, young toddlers have trouble eating powders without accidentally inhaling some of it. A dose of powdered chilis, says Dr. Rubidium, could cause you to stop breathing as your airways constrict. In fact, she says, inhaling any sort of powder, from black pepper to sand to mustard, can be deadly, and several children have died after black pepper was used to punish them. Dr. Rubidium:
What was the motive in the case of Joileen G.? Is it child abuse involving chili powder or an accident? Those answers may prove elusive. Did Joileen G. actually die as a result of chili powder poisoning? Did the chili powder induce chemical and/or mechanical asphyxia? Only an autopsy will reveal those answers.
Whether the Californian toddler’s death was due to an attempt at punishment gone horribly wrong or otherwise, it’s a reminder that, one, you probably shouldn’t be feeding your toddler chili powder, and two, punishing children with painful and potentially deadly spices is not a very smart idea.
More from Smithsonian.com: