Friday, June 17, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit, Part 9—Botulism

Botulism, the fatal condition caused by Botulinum toxin a.k.a. Botox™ , is something I was taught to fear when very young. Botulinum is a neurotoxic protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.

Badly Canned Green Beans Can Cause Botulism
It is the one of the most lethal toxins on earth, according to the Journal of American Medicine. It kills by paralyzing the muscles, including heart and lungs.

It's that ability to paralyze that has led to its current popularity as a deterrent to wrinkling in aging skin. But it must be administered by a professional, or the protein can go into the bloodstream and cause death.

When I was a kid growing up in rural Maine, botulism caused by tainted canned goods was a real threat. The bacterium grows in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) low-acid environment.

Everybody in our town had a garden and most of our moms "put up" the summer's bounty by "canning" it in Mason jars which were kept in the cellar during the long Maine winters. (Often along with big coffin-sized freezers full of venison provided during hunting season. But no, my patrician Latin-professor father did not hunt.)

My mom did a lot of canning, but she never canned green
Botulinum Toxin
beans. She'd had the fear of botulism instilled in her too.

I remember hearing a story about a whole family that was wiped out after eating three-bean salad at a family reunion picnic. Probably an urban (or in this case rural) myth, but it stayed with me.

To this day I can't stand canned green beans. And I have no desire to have the lethal toxin injected into my face to erase my wrinkles.

Hey, I've worked hard for these wrinkles. I display them proudly. 

But green beans are not the only source of the toxin. It occurs naturally in soil and can grow almost anywhere it's in an oxygen-deprived environment.

It was first isolated in pork products in the early 19th century and its name comes from the Latin word for sausage, botulus. 

Does 3-Bean Salad Kill?
It can kill whether it's ingested, injected, or inhaled. Drug addicts sometimes unknowingly inject themselves with it in tainted needles and it can be hard to diagnose.

The symptoms are double vision, slurred speech, muscle weakness, and droopy eyelids, followed by vomiting and difficulty swallowing. Sometimes the symptoms can be mistaken for intoxication.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the fatality rate from botulism was 60% or more, but it has been reduced to 15% because of modern treatments. But patients need to be diagnosed soon after poisoning and they can take several weeks to recover. 

Just today, I read of a case of botulism poisoning in a federal prison in Mississippi. 20 inmates have been hospitalized after drinking homemade moonshine. They are expected to live because of getting immediate treatment, but they are seriously ill.

In the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes series episode The Great Game, botulism features heavily.

(The series combines a number of Conan Doyle's original plots in each episode.) In The Great Game, a schoolboy is poisoned with botulinum in his eczema cream, and a housekeeper is murdered by her brother's lover, who increases the woman's Botox dose.

Botox would make a handy weapon in contemporary fiction, since it is so popular for cosmetic use. It's also used in treatment of an increasing number of medical issues, including bladder control, muscle spasms, excessive sweating, migraines, and bruxism (teeth clenching.)

Author Garry Rodgers, who's a former coroner, has written about what an awful death botulism causes. Here's his full story of the "Red Pepper Paste Man". It also might make you think twice about buying food from China at the Dollar Store.

Can you think of any other mysteries where botulinum is featured? Are you thinking up any plots where it might be used? 

Here are links to the other posts in this series. 

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  1. I find all your posts about poisons really interesting. Probably because I'm such a fan of Forensic Files and there's so much poisoning going on in those episodes too. And I'm learning so much.
    Thank you.

    1. Patricia--I'm glad to hear you're enjoying them. I figured I'd share my research. I've never watched Forensic Files. I should check it out!

  2. Hi Anne. Great post and a great, diabolical poison for fiction writers. Botulism is so common and so deadly - makes me wonder why there aren't more accidental deaths, let alone murders with it.

    In my time as a coroner I had one outstanding botulism case that originated in a jar of red pepper paste. I wrote an article about it that I think your readers might find interesting from a forensic point. Not trying to hijack your blog to promote mine but here's the link to "The Excruciating Death of Mister Red Pepper Paste Man" if you'd like to share it.

    1. Garry--Oooooh You were a coroner? What a great background for a writer! I will definitely check out your post and your blog! Thanks for the link!

  3. Nasty stuff indeed, Anne. I remember Garry's post about the red pepper paste. It was equally chilling. Love this series, Poisoning People for Fun! The title cracks me up.

    1. Sue--I did want to keep this series light, since I write funny mysteries. Not that there's anything light about Garry's chilling story. Never buy Chinese food from the Dollar Store! Or at least if the food is moving around, don't eat it. :-)