This week’s conversation is about - of all things - poisons.
This week’s conversation is about - of all things - poisons. I know it’s a weird subject even for me, but a piece I read recently piqued my interest in the subject.
Way back in the 1940s (when I was born), there were only 60 possible poisons that could be used to kill a person. Then came massive advances in molecular chemistry, and by the mid-1970s, those 60 had grown to more than 5,000!
And those 5,000 toxins could be “Betty Crockered” into various recipes to produce another 250,000 different deadly doses. In the business of death, “progress” came in many flavors.
The undisputed “king” of poisons is botulism. In 1735 Germany, 13 people shared a meal of sausage and all became sick within hours. Six of them died and the rest took months to recover.
That unknown illness was named based upon the Latin root term for sausage yielding “Botulism.” The toxin is not only poisonous but represents the gold standard for deadliness. It is seven million times more powerful than cobra venom.
Technically, a single ounce of botulism properly distributed is lethal enough to kill everyone in the United States. Now of course the qualifier of “properly distributed” moves probability of this to absolute zero, but it’s still sobering calculus.
Illuminated by today’s stark realities, I absorb this information on poisons through the eyes of a citizen very concerned about worldwide terrorism. I tend to think of current threats relative to guns and bullets and explosives.
But in terms of easy portability, lack of detection tools and delivery options, a host of toxins lend themselves well to terrorism. Certainly the sky isn’t falling, but I’d be very surprised if Islamic nuts aren’t actively seeking to arm their quivers with biological and/or chemical arrows.
Notwithstanding obvious clear and present dangers, on purely educational levels, poisons represent a very deep and interesting well of knowledge. You have to give the natural world high praise. When all is said and done, Mother Nature is one awesome lady.
Generally, most discussions of poison pivot to snakes. I’m afraid of snakes and don’t mind admitting it. I don’t even like sticks that look like snakes. I know it’s illogical but where snakes appear, I leave logic in my wake.
Here in the United States, we have 20 species of poisonous snakes. Those 20 species bite about 8,000 folks a year of which less than 10 will actually die. They’re far outpaced in terms of numerical lethality by bees.
In marked contrast to “our” snakes, an Australian “Taipan” is so deadly there has never been a documented case of anybody surviving its bite. One researcher milked a single taipan’s venom and calculated it would be enough to kill more than 23,000 mice. They must really hate mices to pieces.
Our deadliest pit viper is the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, although it’s only 23rd worldwide in venom toxicity. I’m sure little of this matters to readers, but my delving into this subject was born from a great article by Janet Spencer.
This conversation about vile toxins is a relaxing detour from today’s politics. Or at least I think it’s a detour.
Otis Gardner can be reached at email@example.com.