Poisons used in time of war

Chemicals have, unfortunately, been enlisted in warfare with the design of lethal and unpleasant agents with which to attack enemies during battle. This is not a new technique. The ancient Chinese were familiar with 'arsenical smokes', and during the Peloponnesian War in 429 bc, according to Greek historians, the Spartans set fire to wood soaked with pitch and sulphur which burnt furiously and produced poisonous, choking fumes. In 1456 the Christians of Belgrade were saved from their Turkish...

Ginger Jake and Spanish Oil Toxic Food Constituents and Contaminants

Tarkowski (eds.), Toxic Oil Syndrome Mass Food Poisoning in Spain, Report on a WHO Meeting Madrid, 21-25 Mar. 1983, Copenhagen, World Health Organization, 1984. 2. S. H. Henry, F. X. Bosch, and J. C. Bowers, 'Aflatoxin, hepatitis and worldwide liver cancer risks', Advances in Biology and Medicine, 504 (2002), 229-33. 3. C. P. Wild et al., 'Molecular dosimetry of aflatoxin exposure contribution to understanding multifactorial etiopathogenesis of primary hepatocellular...

Antibacterial drugs

In earlier centuries millions of people died from infectious diseases, which were partly responsible for many early deaths and the shortened life expectancy. That this is no longer the case and this aspect of our lives has changed so much for the better is largely due to two things sanitation and hygiene, better drinking water and living conditions and antibacterial drugs. Many of these drugs were discovered by chance and their development is a shining example of the importance of chemicals in...

Mercury

The phrase 'mad as a hatter' is in common English usage but its origin is not so well known. It is derived from the workers who used mercury in the preparation of felt for hats. Beaver and rabbit fur, which were used to make the felt hats, were treated with mercuric nitrate, a mercury salt, in order to matt the fur together, a process called carroting. After this process, the fur would be heated and the workers inevitably became exposed to mercury vapour. The symptoms developed by the workers...

Household Poisons

Chemicals are used as drugs and in industry, and they have just as important a place in our homes. Some chemicals may, however, be unwanted contaminants of the home. In this chapter I shall consider a selection of chemicals used in the home in more detail to explore some of the substances we may be exposed to. Taking a look under the sink in my own home, I found a range of products with an array of chemical constituents a range of cleaning products, containing non-ionic detergents and...

Cocaine

Cocaine has been used by humans for at least 3,000 years, initially in its natural form in the leaves of the coca plant and only more recently in pure form. The plant, a shrub (Erythroxylon coca), grows in South America and South-East Asia, and has been extensively cultivated in the foothills of the Andes in Peru and Bolivia. The leaves, which the natives of South America chewed to combat fatigue and hunger, contain cocaine. Once its effects were known, the drug began to be used in religious...

Ergot

Ergot is a fungus that grows on crops like rye, wheat, oats, and barley and can be recognized as a black growth ('ergot' is French for rooster spur). The fungus, of which Claviceps purpurea is a major variety, produces a mixture of chemicals, perhaps as many as twelve different related substances, known as alkaloids. The proportions of alkaloids will vary depending on the climatic conditions, the type of plant, and other factors. The different alkaloids have various effects, hence the symptoms...

The teratogenic effects of methyl mercury

One of the particularly tragic aspects of the Minamata disaster was the effect methyl mercury exposure had on unborn children. Some of the mothers exposed to methyl mercury from the fish and seafood gave birth to babies who were severely affected with a disorder similar to infantile paralysis, suffering cerebral palsy and mental retardation. This occurred even in mothers who showed no symptoms themselves, a classic characteristic of a teratogen. Some babies were born completely paralysed....

The development of an antidote

Knowledge that paracetamol was detoxified by the thiol glutathione led the development of an antidote. Glutathione itself cannot be given to the patient after an overdose, so a number of similar substances were initially tried as possible antidotes. There was some success but some had unpleasant effects. It was then found that a substance called N-acetylcysteine would help to regenerate the glutathione in the liver. This was without major side effects and seemed to be successful. It is given by...

How alcohol is broken down and how it affects the liver

After we have had a drink, the alcohol it contains is absorbed into the blood and enters the liver, where it is broken down by an enzyme (alcohol dehydro-genase) into a chemical called acetaldehyde. This is formed slowly, fortunately (as it is responsible for some of the unpleasant effects of alcoholic drinks, flushes, headache, nausea). Thankfully, it is also removed more rapidly by another enzyme (aldehyde dehydrogenase), to form acetic acid, which is then incorporated into normal metabolic...

Saccharin

Saccharin16 has been for a long time a widely used and very successful sweetener. It was discovered in 1879 by chance, by Constantin Fahlberg, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in the USA. Fahlberg was a student of Professor Ira Remsen who had instructed him to synthesize derivatives of the substance toluene. He made one derivative, and then noticed at lunch that his bread tasted sweet. He realized that he had not washed his hands since working in the laboratory and the sweet taste...

Types of food additives

Preservatives are substances added to food to prolong their shelf life. They prevent or reduce bacterial or fungal growth. Examples of preservatives are salt, nitrites, sulphur dioxide, propionate, and benzoate. Antioxidants are added to oils and fats to stop them going rancid because of oxidative damage. They may also be added to fruits and vegetables. Examples of antioxidants are butylated hydroxytoluene, ascorbate, and a-tocopherol. Emulsifying, stabilizing, and thickening agents are added...

Arsenic useful drug or deadly poison

Recommended by Hippocrates and Pliny, it has been used in one form or another as a medicinal agent. Many compounds containing arsenic are also highly toxic, and for centuries have featured regularly in intentional and accidental fatal poisoning cases. At the same time, it has been used for the treatment of a number of diseases and for other beneficial purposes. For example, it is the main ingredient in Fowler's solution (Liquor Arsenicalis), which was invented...

Snakes rattlers and cobras

Ten per cent of the snakes in the world, about 300 different species, are poisonous, and snakes are an important source of natural toxins. Poisonous snakes belong primarily to certain groups, such as that including the mamba and cobra, the vipers, and the sea snakes and another group that includes the boomslang and the mangrove. In a typical year there are some 45,000 snake bites in North America alone, but only 20 per cent of these are from poisonous snakes and only a proportion of these...

Fugu the puffer fish

About three to four o'clock in the morning we were seized with most extraordinary weakness in all our limbs attended with numbness of sensation like that caused by exposing one's hands or feet to the fire after having been pinched much by the frost. I had almost lost the sense of feeling nor could I distinguish between light and heavy objects, a quart pot full of water and a feather was the same in my hand. We each took a vomit and after that a sweat which gave great relief.11 So wrote Captain...

PCCDDs and PCDFs

Polychloro-dibenzodioxins and polychloro-dibenzofurans are basically contaminants which can be formed when chemicals containing the element chlorine are synthesized or subjected to heat. There are many of these substances (75 PCDDs and 135 PCDFs) which can have various numbers of chlorine atoms, when they are known as congeners. In some cases there can be compounds that have the same number of atoms but arranged differently, when they are called isomers. usually called just dioxin, is the most...

Vinyl chloride

I have chosen to deal with vinyl chloride in my discussion of exposure in the workplace as it serves to demonstrate the problems that may arise from exposure to novel chemicals, how these can be prevented, and how crucial a knowledge of toxicology is to occupational health and the safe use of chemicals. The major use of vinyl chloride (also known as vinyl chloride monomer, VCM) is in the production of the ubiquitous plastic, PVC or polyvinylchloride, which began to be used in the 1940s. This...

Ddt

Malathion became widely used, as it had even greater selectivity than DDT. Malathion became widely used, as it had even greater selectivity than DDT. humans), and fish and other aquatic organisms. There have generally been more effects on wildlife in the USA, where for example they have been sprayed over large areas of water to kill mosquito larvae, than in the UK. Awareness of the dose necessary is, as always, crucial. In Canada an OP insecticide called phosphamidon was used to control insect...

Hyoscine and the screaming mandrake root

Goe, and catche a falling starre, Get with child a mandrake roote, Tell me, where all the past yeares are, Or who cleft the Divels foot, Teach me to heare Mermaides singing, Or to keep off envies stinging, And finde what winde, Serves to advance an honest minde. From a song by John Donne (1572-1631) Hyoscine, or scopolamine, is an alkaloid found in a number of plants but it is the mandrake, which grows in many Mediterranean countries, around which much folklore has grown. The chemical is toxic...

Beer and paracetamol

A 43-year-old man was admitted to hospital suffering hallucinations. He had fallen off his bike, fractured a bone in his shoulder, and was prescribed one to two tablets of Tylenol (paracetamol plus codeine) every four to six hours for two days. He continued to suffer occasional hallucinations and vomiting and from jaundice. Once in hospital liver function tests on his blood indicated that he had liver damage. He died in a hepatic coma thirty hours after being admitted to hospital. It was later...

Too much lead in the beer

The victim had complained of abdominal pain for two to three years which had become worse about ten weeks before his death. His red blood cells were found to be abnormal and he had inflammation of the peripheral nerves. The victim was a publican who liked to drink the first beer drawn from the barrel every day with his customers. Unhappily for him, this had been lying overnight in lead pipes some 20 feet long which connected the barrel with the tap. The beer and drinking water in the pub were...

Chemicals Used to Kill

Poison has been used for execution, murder, and assassination and in warfare since ancient times. As we saw earlier, the word 'toxicology' is derived from the Greek words for the poison with which arrows were tipped. The killing of Rasputin in 1917 was a clear case of the deliberate use of poison for a politically motivated murder, but where the assassins may not have had enough knowledge of the dose of cyanide necessary (see case notes pp. 215-16). Two thousand years earlier, the ancient...

Toxins from sea creatures

Those of us who have been stung by a jellyfish know the pain this can cause. In the case of the Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish, the pain is intense and is accompanied by many other symptoms, including pain in the muscles in the injured limb or even the whole body, pain when breathing, and even breakdown of red blood cells and kidney failure. The toxin, physalitoxin, is a large protein which is lethal to mice at a dose of 0.2 mg per kg body weight, that is a lethal dose in humans would be about...

Effects of lead poisoning

Lead in the inorganic form, as in lead salts, causes a range of effects depending on the amount. General effects on the gastrointestinal tract lead to pain (colic), constipation, and diarrhoea vomiting can also occur. There are sometimes pains in the joints (gout), and weakness in the arms or legs or hands (hence 'wrist drop') resulting from effects on the nerves. Headache and blindness are sometimes symptoms, as well as mental disturbances which in severe cases can reach insanity. Chronic...

Other drugs from moulds

Many other drugs as well as penicillin have been derived from moulds or other similar organisms. The drug griseofulvin, an antifungal, was also isolated from a Penicillium mould. Cephalosporins, another group of antibacterial drugs, were isolated from other moulds. The antibacterial drugs streptomycin and tetracycline and the antifungal drug nystatin were all derived from yeasts. Using these naturally produced drug molecules, chemists in pharmaceutical companies have synthesized many...

First the Cats Died Environmental Contaminants

Woodall, The Surgeon's Mate or Military & Domestic Surgery, i639. 3. 'Minamata disease the history and the measures', Ministry of the Environment Japan website (2002) index.html) 4. C. J. Polson, M. A. Green, and M. R. Lee, Clinical Toxicology, 3rd edn., London, Pitman, 1983, 423. 5. F. Pierce, 'Danger in every drop', New Scientist (12 Feb. 2000), 16-17. 6. 'Arsenic in drinking water', Fact Sheet no. 210, World Health Organization website (2001) 7. G. Reggiani, 'Medical problems raised by...

Beneficial effects of aspirin

Apart from the widespread use of aspirin to relieve pain, fever, and inflammation for the past 100 years, more recently other beneficial effects have been found. It has been known for some time that aspirin will reduce the clotting of blood, as a result of its interference with the production of prostaglandins, which are involved with the clotting process (see box above p. 51). When and why would it be beneficial to slow the blood clotting process Although we need to have a blood clotting...

Aflatoxins and how they cause cancer

The aflatoxins are a group of related mycotoxins produced by the mould Aspergillus flavus. There are four toxins, Bu B2, Gu and G2. The mould typically grows on crops such as grain and peanuts in hot, humid climates. There is evidence from epidemiology of an association between exposure to aflatoxin Bj in the diet and liver cancer in humans. Aflatoxin Bj is metabolized by the enzyme system cytochrome P450 in the liver to a chemically reactive metabolite (see pp. 19-23 and fig. 25), which reacts...

Arsenic

This element, perhaps more than any other, has long been associated with poisoning, especially of the homicidal and suicidal type. Thus Agatha Christie called one of her plays Arsenic and Old Lace and the author Gustave Flaubert had his character Emma Bovary use an arsenic compound to commit suicide in the novel Madame Bovary. This aspect of arsenic poisoning will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 9 (pp. 22i-2). Unlike mercury, serious pollution due to arsenic is mostly caused by natural...

The Spanish toxic oil syndrome

On i May 1981, in a district of Madrid in Spain, an 8-year-old boy died, apparently from a disease affecting the respiratory system. Later six more members of the family fell ill with similar symptoms. Other cases were reported at around the same time and within a few days the Directorate of Public Health became aware of the problem. This marked the beginning of an unusual outbreak of respiratory disease in and around Madrid. Within a week i50 or more cases per day were being recorded in...

The effect of banning DDT

What has been the effect of banning DDT First, other insecticides have replaced DDT, most, if not all, of which have been more toxic. No human deaths have been attributed to DDT, while hundreds of deaths have been caused by the organophosphate insecticides which succeeded it. Secondly, the control of the malarial mosquito was hampered when DDT was banned, and consequently many more people in countries such as India and Sri Lanka succumbed to malaria than might otherwise have done so. Millions...

How paint stripper can cause carbon monoxide poisoning

Methylene chloride is used in industry as a degreasing solvent and is found in most paint strippers. When used in a poorly ventilated or confined place, the volatile chemical is inhaled and rapidly absorbed from the lungs into the blood, which then distributes it to other areas of the body. Due to the way the circulatory system is organized the first organ exposed after the heart will be the brain, and this type of solvent, which is soluble in fat, can easily enter the brain. If sufficient...

Botox targets nerves

Botulinum toxin is a mixture of six large molecules, each of which consists of two components. One binds to the walls of nerve cells which then allows the whole toxin molecule to be transported inside the cell (rather like a Trojan horse). Once inside the nerve cell, the second component destroys a protein, synaptobrevin. By destroying the protein, the toxin prevents the release of the substance acetylcholine from small packets at the ends of nerves. These nerves, attached to voluntary muscles,...

Symptoms and detection of strychnine poisoning

The effects of strychnine usually appear rapidly, within ten to fifteen minutes. As with most poisoning cases, the victim appears to be well and in good health, and then suddenly falls ill following the eating or drinking of something or the taking of a preparation or medication. Within minutes the victim will complain of stiffness, often in the back of the neck. Tremor and twitching start, followed by convulsions. Occasionally there is only one massive convulsion before death, but usually...

Treatment of thallium poisoning

Fortunately there are ways to treat thallium poisoning once it has been diagnosed. Its similarity to potassium gives a clue to the treatment of thallium poisoning. Apart from washing out the stomach and giving charcoal to absorb the poison, techniques often used in the treatment of poisoning, there is an antidote. This is the dye Prussian blue, which contains potassium and is given by mouth. It exchanges its potassium for thallium. Like potassium, thallium is excreted through the kidneys into...

Graham Young the Bovingdon poisoner

In 1971 Graham Young started work at John Hadlands, a photographic instruments company in Bovingdon, Hertfordshire, north of London. Within a few weeks a number of his workmates fell ill with diarrhoea and sickness. So many of them suffered from the symptoms that they called it the 'Bovingdon bug'. The management were mystified and more than a little worried. Bob Egle, head storeman, had been the first to be taken ill, in July 1971. As well as sickness and diarrhoea, he had numbness in his...

Methyl alcohol

Methyl alcohol, or methanol, which is an alternative name, is also sometimes found in antifreeze together with ethylene glycol. It is sometimes found in other products used around the home such as screenwash, and it is a constituent of methylated spirits and industrial alcohol which are used in laboratories. Just as ethylene glycol is toxic because it is converted into poisonous products, so methanol is converted into the poisonous substance formic acid. Again, the enzyme is the same as that...

The doseresponse graph

The relationship between the level of exposure to a chemical and its harmful effects is very important in understanding how poisons work and whether they pose a risk. The typical graph can represent either a proportion of a group of individuals (humans or experimental animals) who have been given different doses of a substance and who show a particular effect (for example, the appearance of a slowing of reaction time after drinking alcohol), or the magnitude of the effect in a particular...

Isoniazid genetic factors in toxicity

Although not well known by the general public worldwide, this is one of the most widely used drugs. It is used to treat tuberculosis, previously known as consumption, a disease which has killed a thousand million people over time. Although improved living conditions and drug treatment probably led to it becoming less prevalent in the West in the past century, it is now becoming increasingly common. This is partly because of the occurrence of AIDS which increases vulnerability to infection....

Organophosphateinduced delayed neuropathy

There are other effects of OPs that are not predictable and are caused by only a small number of organophosphates. Of particular concern is the delayed neuropathy caused by some OPs. This has a different mechanism from the acute effects and may be irreversible. This is the effect described in Chapter 10 (see pp. 259-63), where the peripheral nerves, such as those in the legs and arms, are slowly destroyed, and consequently the limbs are paralysed, possibly permanently. Organophosphate...

Hemlock the executioner of Socrates

The poison hemlock contains two alkaloids that are poisonous, coniine and coniceine. They act to block the transmission of nerve impulses, which results in death by failure of respiration. The plant is famous for its part in the execution of Socrates in ancient Greece, who was found guilty of corrupting the young and neglecting the gods. The execution was described by Plato in Phaedo, written in 360 bc And the man who gave the poison began to examine his feet and legs . . . then he pressed his...

Minamata disease

Minamata is an industrial city on the Yatsushiro coast of Japan on the southernmost island (Kyushu). In the city there was a factory that manufactured the chemicals vinyl chloride (used to make the plastic PVC see pp. 168-71) and acetaldehyde for many years. The processes used inorganic mercury (mercuric oxide) as a catalyst. The effluent from the factory contained inorganic mercury and perhaps also some organic mercury (methyl mercury), produced as a by-product in the chemical reaction in the...

Fava beans and haemolytic anaemia

There are many other foods that contain toxic chemicals from a particular part of a plant or at some stage of their processing, which it is beyond the scope of this book to cover. It is well known, for example, that rhubarb leaves are poisonous, as they contain oxalic acid which is toxic, especially to the kidney. Unripe, green potatoes are also poisonous because they produce a poison called solanine. Some foods, for example fava beans, are poisonous only to certain individuals. Fava beans...

Was James Maybrick poisoned

The trial for murder of Florence Maybrick is famous. The Maybricks were an American couple who had moved to Liverpool in the 1880s. They were reasonably affluent, had two children, and employed several servants. James Maybrick, a cotton broker, was a hypochondriac and regularly treated himself with arsenic, declaring that 'I take this arsenic because I find it strengthens me'. He also took other patent medicines including strychnine. In 1889 Florence Maybrick took a lover, a Mr Brierly, and...

How DDT works and why it is toxic to insects but not mammals

The mechanism by which DDT acts is to disturb the function of nerves in the insect. Nerves in both insects and humans work by allowing an electric current to move down them. This action potential, as it is called, depends on the movement of two metal ions, sodium and potassium, across the membrane of the nerve, and involves channels for the sodium being opened very briefly. DDT interacts with the sodium channel in the insect nerve and retards its closure. This means that the flow of sodium and...

Fish with botox

In October and November 1987 eight cases of botulism occurred, two in New York and six in Israel. All the victims had eaten Kapchunka, air-dried, salted whitefish, which had been prepared in New York and taken by individuals to Israel. All the patients developed the symptoms of botulism within thirty-six hours and one died. Some were treated with anti-toxin and two received breathing assistance.10 The first cases of poisoning associated with the toxin were probably described in...

Aflatoxin and the mouldy peanut

In i960 some turkey farmers in the United Kingdom lost over 100,000 birds to a mysterious disease. At first it was thought to have been caused by a virus and was named Turkey X syndrome. Eventually it was traced to the use of a particular feed produced by the Oil Cake Mills company, mostly from groundnuts imported from South America. Veterinary pathologists found that the internal organs of the dead birds, for example the liver, showed a number of changes including cancer. What could have...

Rasputins Revenge Chemicals Used to Kill

Mann, Murder, Magic, and Medicine, 51. 2. A. Beeche, 'The evil monk the life and times of Gregory Efimovich Rasputin', European Royal History website (http www.eurohistory.com Rasputin.html) 3. Polson, Green, and Lee, Clinical Toxicology, 429 K. Watson, Poisoned Lives English Poisoners and their Victims, London, Hambledon and London, 2004,3-5 C. Wilson and P. Pitman, Encyclopaedia of Murder, London, Pan Books, 1961,92. 4. Bruce and Dilling, Materia Medica and Therapeutics, 129. 5. Polson,...

Fungal toxins toxic toadstools and magic mushrooms

There are many toxins produced by fungi of many different kinds, such as aflatoxin, a potent carcinogen which can contaminate food. (Some of these will be discussed in Chapter 10.) Fungi in the form of mushrooms can be eaten, but many fungi, including mushrooms and toadstools, produce potent toxins. Some of these are or have been used as drugs. Probably the most poisonous mushroom in Britain is the death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides), which is also found in other parts of the world (see...

How penicillin kills bacteria

How is penicillin toxic to bacteria and why does this not affect human patients This, in a nutshell, is due to its interference with the formation of the bacterial cell wall. Penicillin stops it being formed and so stops the bacteria from reproducing. Bacterial cells, unlike mammalian cells, have a rigid wall penicillin and its derivatives act on this cell wall. The walls are made of molecules linked together into macromolecules. These macro-molecules are known as polysaccharides as they are...

The attempted murder of Benvenuto Cellini

That mercury is a double-edged sword is illustrated by the story of Benvenuto Cellini, the great Italian sculptor of the sixteenth century. He was the first person to produce life-sized works in bronze. He was also sexually very active and consequently contracted syphilis when he was 29. He refused treatment with mercury, commonly in use at the time, preferring to take guaiac, a preparation from the wood of a plant believed to be effective for the treatment of syphilis. This proved ineffective...

Agonising death of haunted woman

A haunted Wendover woman died an agonising death after drinking kettle descaler In the last year Mrs Heidi Mason, 44, of Orchard Close, Wendover, had tried to kill herself with pill overdoses, a razor blade and a plastic bag after becoming a victim of serious depression. She was found, bleeding from the mouth, half-conscious but dying, in the grounds of St. John's psychiatric hospital, Stone, where she was a voluntary patient, on June 4. Her stomach was almost entirely eaten away by the acid...

Thallium almost a perfect poison

Thallium, a metal, is probably largely unknown to the general public, but it has featured in a number of cases of homicidal, suicidal, and accidental poisoning. It has been used as a pesticide for killing insects and rats and has various uses in industry. At one time it was even used for removing unwanted hair and in the treatment of ringworm, for which a dose of 8 mg of thallium acetate per kilogram of body weight was given to children. This is dangerously close to the lethal dose of 12 mg per...

Tartrazine sensitivity

The mechanisms underlying sensitivity to tartrazine are unknown but some observations may suggest a possible cause. Tartrazine is broken down by the bacteria that normally live in the digestive system, giving rise to several products. It has been shown that the urine of animals that have been fed tartrazine, and presumably containing these products, is mutagenic. This means, for example, that when bacteria were exposed to the urine mutations occurred in the genetic material. This suggests that...

Measurements of risk

Odds ratio this is the ratio of risk of disease in an exposed group compared to a control group. It can be calculated as A X B C X D odds ratio, where A is the number of cases of disease in the exposed population B is the number of unexposed controls without disease C is the number of exposed subjects without disease and D is the number of unexposed controls with disease. For example, if there are 5 cases in 100,000 of the control subjects and 10 cases in 100,000 of the exposed population...

Mass suicide

In 1978 about 900 people, members of a religious sect called the People's Temple, died in Guyana, South America. Founded in California by Jim Jones, a faith-healing preacher, the sect comprised a motley group including drug addicts, the maladjusted, mentally afflicted, and some ex-convicts. When a group of relatives arrived determined to investigate the activities of the sect, the founder managed to convince his followers to drink a potion prepared by the medical officer, which contained...

Paraquat safe weedkiller or dangerous poison

Paraquat is known to and used by many gardeners and householders as well as farmers. It is used in more than 100 countries around the world. In the UK it is sold as Weedol for home use and as Grammoxone for agricultural use. Paraquat is a contact herbicide, killing weeds it comes into contact with but not being absorbed into them sufficiently to destroy the roots. It is believed to interfere with and to disrupt photosynthesis, the essential mechanism by which plants use sunlight to manufacture...

Accumulation of chemicals in the food chain bioaccumulation and biomagnification

Chemicals such as DDT and other organochlorine pesticides are not very soluble in water but do dissolve in fat. Therefore in animals, including humans, that are exposed to these substances the chemicals tend to be distributed into tissues containing fat. Although DDT is metabolized to some extent and some is excreted (see Chapter 2), some of it remains in animals. If exposure is repeated or continuous, accumulation occurs. For example, fish or other organisms swimming in contaminated rivers may...

Strychnine poisoned by the last dose in the bottle

One of the most well-known, infamous poisons, beloved of murderers and crime writers, is strychnine, which is derived from a tree found in India, Strychnos nux vomica. Strychnine may be found in the crushed seeds of the tree, along with other alkaloids, and hence it is often known by the name nux vomica. It is also found in the upas tree, along with antiarin (a cardiac glycoside), and the sap of the tree containing these toxins was used for making poison darts for the execution of criminals in...

The ginger jake tragedy or the jake walk blues

Then he would eat of some craved food until he was sick or he would drink Jake or whiskey until he was shaken paralytic with red wet eyes. In early 1930 a new illness began to appear in the south and mid-west of the United States. First described as the '1930-type of polyneuritis', it was reported in the newspapers and seemed to affect a growing number of people. The victims experienced aching calf muscles and numbness in the legs, followed by loss of sensation, which progressed to weakness and...

Was Rasputin poisoned shot or drowned

A self-proclaimed holy man, who held great sway over the Tsarina of Russia in the early part of the twentieth century, Gregory Efimovich Rasputin owed his power to his apparent ability to heal her son, the Tsarevich. The Tsarevich suffered from haemophilia, a hereditary disease afflicting males, which was passed on through Queen Victoria to various members of the royal families of Europe, in which the blood fails to clot. The Tsarina became dependent on Rasputin, often sending for him to tend...

Endocrinedisrupting chemicals in English rivers

In 1994, researchers put cages of male rainbow trout into five rivers. In each case five sites were chosen, one upstream of a waste treatment plant, one at the point where the effluent was discharged, and three others at various distances downstream. It was found that the female protein vitellogenin was produced in male fish in four out of the five rivers at the site of the effluent discharge. The other waste treatment plant did not receive industrial waste. In one river, where the effluent was...

Rattlesnake and cobra venoms thin the blood and dissolve flesh

Many snake venoms, including those from the rattlesnake, interfere with blood clotting in some way. Destruction or alteration of components of the clotting process, for example the protein fibrinogen, is a common method, with the result that clotting does not occur. At the same time enzymes are degrading tissue and muscle. The muscle is degraded by the action of a specific toxin, myotoxin, which increases the calcium level in muscle, precipitating the self-destruction of the muscle tissue....

The case of the shrinking alligator penis

It was reported that the alligator population of Lake Apopka in northern Florida was declining, presumably because of lack of success in reproduction. The male animals were found to have abnormal testes, low testosterone levels, and small phalli (penises). The female alligators had abnormalities too and high levels of oestrogen. It is believed that high levels of organochlorine compounds, resulting from a spillage of the pesticide difocol, were responsible. The difocol was contaminated with...

Aristolochia fangchi

This Chinese herb has been associated with damage to the kidneys, called nephropathy, and in some individuals it has led to cancer of the kidneys.10 In one case in Belgium a number of people were poisoned with this herb. The Belgian Ministry of Health estimated that about 10,000 people had taken Chinese herbs between 1990 and 1992, of whom at least 70 had developed end-stage kidney failure. It seems that in one particular case the herbal preparation was used for weight reduction in dieters. One...

How nerve gases work

The effect of the nerve gases tabun and sarin is to block the enzyme acetylcho-linesterase, just as the organophosphate insecticides do. This enzyme is found in many tissues but it has a particularly important job in the nerves where it removes the substance acetylcholine at the ends of the nerves. The blockade of the enzyme at nerve endings means that the acetylcholine, a neuro-transmitter, is not removed. This results in the receptors responsive to the acetylcholine being over-stimulated. The...

Leah Betts died of drinking water to counter drugs effect

By Jeremy Laurance, health correspondent Leah Betts, the teenager who collapsed after taking an ecstasy tablet, died as a result of drinking too much water, which made her brain swell. Doctors who treated her at Broomfield Hospital, Chelmsford, Essex, where she was taken after lapsing into a coma at home during her 18th birthday party, will tell the coroner that 'water intoxication', and not an allergic reaction to the drug, was the cause of death. This tragedy happened on 16 December 1995 in...

Tricothecenes and other mycotoxins

In 1942-3, during the Second World War, thousands died in the Soviet Union after eating bread made from flour contaminated with mycotoxins. The flour was made from grain that had been left in the fields over the winter and had become wet and mouldy before it was harvested. The mould was of the Fusarium type which can infect a variety of crops from rye to rice, and produces tricothecene mycotoxins (see below, this page). The disease caused by these toxins, alimentary toxic aleikiia, has a high...

Antifreeze sweet tasting but lethal

Antifreeze is used in car radiators to stop the coolant water freezing in the winter. It is almost always one chemical substance, ethylene glycol, although occasionally it is mixed with methyl alcohol to make an even more toxic cocktail. Ethylene glycol would be described by a chemist as a type of alcohol, and if drunk it would at first have similar effects to a glass or two of wine. It is, apparently, sweet-tasting and indeed it was once illegally used (as was a closely related substance,...

The case of Susan Barber

As well as being used in many suicides, paraquat has also featured in a murder case. The murder went almost undetected but for the persistence of a pathologist. The Barbers lived in Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex and had been married for over 10 years by 1981. Michael, who worked in a local factory, was unskilled and had been in trouble with the police several times. His wife, Susan, had married him at 17, already with child although, unbeknown to Michael, the child was not his. Susan continued her...

Murder by carbon monoxide

There are many other poisons that have been used for murder, suicide, and execution, both natural and man-made substances. As we saw earlier, carbon monoxide has been widely used for suicide, when coal gas was used in homes and also by way of car exhausts. Both coal gas and, more recently, car exhausts have also been used for murder. Even pure carbon monoxide has been used, for example, as in a case where a college lecturer killed his wife by using the gas from a cylinder he had acquired from...

How triorthocresyl phosphate caused jake leg

Tri-orthocresyl phosphate (TOCP) is an organophosphate used as a solvent in industry. It has also been used as an additive for aero engine oil. It causes degeneration of the peripheral nerves (the nerves serving the limbs and hands and feet), a disorder called peripheral neuropathy. This toxic effect is due primarily to a specific interaction between the organophosphate and a particular protein in the nerves, which is an enzyme. TOCP becomes bound to it and then undergoes a change, known as...

There are No Safe Drugs Only Safe Ways of Using Them

Drugs are substances that many of us take for granted, at least in the industrialized, affluent West. We expect them to be safe and we get upset if they occasionally cause side effects, especially serious toxic effects. These are called adverse drug reactions. Drugs are the chemicals most commonly used for suicide and often feature in accidental poisoning cases. To some, the word 'drug' is synonymous with drugs of abuse. Others may include medicines they are prescribed by the doctor or buy from...