A 19-year-old may have been killed by her 14-stick-a-day chewing gum habit, an inquest has heard.
Samantha Jenkins, from Llanelli, was days away from celebrating her 20th birthday when she fell into a coma on 3 June 2011 and died three days later. When admitted to hospital, doctors found she had severe magnesium, potassium, sodium and calcium deficiencies.
Dr Paul Griffiths, who said Jenkins' death was caused by cerebral hypoxia, said he found "four or five bright green lumps" in her stomach. "I had to smell them to see what they were and they smelled of mint," he said.
Acting senior coroner Colin Phillips said the sweeteners in chewing gum may have been the cause of the electrolyte depletion which brought on Jenkins' convulsions.
Her death was originally thought to be caused by an overdose or some form of poisoning, although an inquest into her death found no evidence of drugs or alcohol in her system.
Jenkins' mother Maria Morgan said she found hundreds of used chewing gum wrappers in her room and the teen had been complaining of headaches for months.
Morgan spent four years campaigning for an inquest after she realised her daughter's chewing gum habit may have caused her death.
"I looked through my daughter’s bags, drawers, and bedroom and I found hundreds of sugar-free wrappers and receipts with several packets of chewing gum on them," Morgan said.
"From the time Sam went into hospital on the Friday evening till they turned her machines off Monday evening, the doctors, neurosurgeons and numerous consultants were baffled as to what had caused all her salts to be so dangerously low, and convinced she had been poisoned. She was rushed to hospital and put in an induced coma to control her fitting and convulsions while getting her salts back up to a normal level – unfortunately the damage had already been done and the continuous fitting had caused her brain to swell causing her to have a brain stem death. She never regained consciousness.
"My daughter was a vibrant, happy, fun-loving 19-year-old who had her whole life ahead of her. She had no idea whatsoever that she was slowly killing herself. The last four years have been a living hell on earth, waiting for answers.
"While investigating sorbitol and aspartame poisoning myself I was shocked and saddened to find they can interfere with the electrolytes in your body causing your salts to drop dangerously and that if you have severe cramps after consuming sorbitol you should seek medical help immediately.
"I just want answers for my beautiful little girl so that we as a family can finally have closure and that maybe the public response could mean changes in awareness of these additives, warning on packets and educating families on the dangers of these additives."
Although the sorbitol and aspartame sweeteners in Jenkins' favourite brand of chewing gum have been ruled safe by the Food Standards Agency, Dr Griffiths said an average of 14 sticks a day would have amounted to 16.8 grams of sweeteners.
The excessive levels of artificial sugars may have caused a laxative effect leading to the depletion of electrolytes, the inquest heard.
"There is very little evidence," Dr Griffiths warned. "There is only two case reports about weight loss. No one has actually died as a result of chewing gum. I think there is a potential for this much chewing gum to cause this problem, but it’s not hard fact."
The final verdict of the inquest was that Jenkins' death was caused by swelling of the brain caused by convulsions caused by lack of salt, magnesium and calcium but the excessive amount of sweetener in her system may have had an effect.