Friday, April 27, 2018

Gelsemium : Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 34


Gelsemium is a plant that Arthur Conan Doyle believed might provide a break-through painkiller and anti-anxiety medicine. 

Gelsemium sempervirens aka Carolina Jessamine
Instead, it nearly killed him.

Gelsemium is a flowering plant native to North America and Asia. It’s a beautiful, hardy landscaping plant that can be found all over the warmer parts of the US. Yellow Gelsemium (Carolina Jessamine) is the state flower of South Carolina.

It’s also a deadly poison.

All parts of the plant are poisonous to humans and most mammals. The nectar is even poisonous to honeybees.

Gelsemium is a Latinized form of the Italian word for jasmine, gelsomino, but it’s not related to the classic jasmine plant Jasminum officinale, which is NOT poisonous. In fact “official” jasmine is related to the olive tree, and as most people who have been a Chinese restaurant know, makes a lovely tea.


Arthur Conan Doyle experimented with Gelsemium

But don’t make tea out of gelsemium! 

Two species of gelsemium are native to North America, and one to China and Southeast Asia.

1) Gelsemium Sempervirens, Carolina jessamine, is found all over the US and Central America, and often used in landscaping. Yellow jessamine is sometimes called “evening trumpet flower.” As I walked around my neighborhood recently, I saw it everywhere. It’s hardy enough to survive the salt air here at the beach. It’s intriguing enough I may reconsider the murder weapon in my next Camilla mystery.

2) Gelsemium Rankinii, known as Rankin's jessamine, swamp jessamine, or Rankin's trumpet flower is native to the southern US. If you’re writing a southern gothic mystery, swamp jessamine might make a great plot device.

3) Gelsemium elegans, native to China and Southeast Asia, which is nicknamed "heartbreak grass,” grows in Asian foothills and mountains. It’s the most deadly of the species. 


Gelsemium Rankinii or Swamp Jessamine


The active components of gelsemium are alkaloids. Mostly a gel called emine, which is a poison related to strychnine.

Like most poisons, gelsemium has historically been used for medicinal purposes in small doses. It was once used topically to treat many ailments, including skin eruptions, facial tics, and measles, and it was ingested in a tincture to treat rheumatism, various tropical diseases, headaches, nerve pain, and psychological disturbances.

That's why the 20-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle decided to experiment with it. He hoped a tincture of gelsemium would alleviate the headaches and depression he suffered as a young medical student. Showing that his Sherlock Holmes stories may have been more than a bit autobiographical, he tested the newly discovered drug on himself—observing and taking notes as he increased the dosage. Eight years before he created Sherlock Holmes, he was a medical sleuth himself. 


In 1879, he reported his less than encouraging results in the British Medical Journal. He discovered the drug caused paralysis along with alleviating the pain and caused a constellation of life-threatening side effects including debilitating intestinal distress. 

Gelsemium Elegans--the deadliest species
But young Conan Doyle’s experience didn’t dissuade others from using gelsemium. As late as 1906, a drug called Gelsemium D3 (made from Gelsemium sempervirens) was used in mainstream medicine. It was considered a safe treatment of facial tics and malaria. It is still used as a homeopathic remedy, but it is not considered safe in any discernible doses.

It is, however very effective as a poison. It’s fast acting, and symptoms appear within minutes.

Breathing and vision are affected first. Then the victim suffers dizziness, nausea, and convulsions, and eventually paralysis and cardiac arrest. It appears that the victim has simply had a heart attack.

That may be while gelsemium has become popular with contract killers and political assassins. There have been two high profile victims of gelsemium in the past decade.

Long Liyuan. In December 2011 Chinese billionaire Long Liyuan died after lunching with business rivals. The cat-stew he was eating had been poisoned with Gelsemium elegans. (I tend to think it serves him right for eating kitties.)

Alexander Perepilichny. Perepilichny died at age 43 after going out for a jog in London in November 2012. He had escaped Russia after blowing the whistle on a major tax fraud involving high ranking Russian officials. Although he had been warned of Kremlin death threats, his death was first ruled a heart attack by the British authorities. 


But a later autopsy done by his insurance company found traces of Gelsemium elegans in his stomach. Gelsemium elegans does not grow in England, but is a favorite weapon of Kremlin assassins.

In 2017, a U.S. intelligence report to Congress stated with "high confidence" that Perepilichny was assassinated with gelsemium on the orders of the Kremlin.


 ***

Here's a List of All the Posts in the Poison Series


Part 32: Mercury
Part 33: Nerve Agents

***

The Gatsby Game, is only 99c at all the Amazons this month 

A paper version is available for $10.99 at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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When Fitzgerald-quoting con man Alistair Milborne is found dead a movie star's motel room—igniting a worldwide scandal—the small-town police can't decide if it's an accident, suicide, or foul play.

As evidence of murder emerges, Nicky Conway, the smart-mouth nanny, becomes the prime suspect. She's the only one who knows what happened. But she also knows nobody will ever believe her.

The story is based on the real mystery surrounding the death of David Whiting, actress Sarah Miles' business manager, during the filming of the 1973 Burt Reynolds movie The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Nerve Agents: Sarin, Tabun, Vx, and Novichok—Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #33



On March 4th of this year, a former Russian spy named Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia collapsed near a park bench in the quiet English cathedral town of Salisbury. Luckily Yulia is now expected to recover, but her father is still in critical condition. 

A man who found them described the scene to CBS: "Her eyes were just completely white. They were wide-open but just white
Salisbury Cathedral
and [she was] frothing at the mouth. Then the man went stiff. His arms stopped moving, but he’s still looking dead straight.” These are the signs of poisoning with a nerve agent, aka a “Weapon of Mass Destruction.”

The best-known nerve agent is Sarin. As a gas, it has been used for mass murder, like Saddam Hussein’s attack on the Kurds in 1988 and the attack by a religious cult on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. Its use is also strongly suspected in the Syrian civil war.

Exposure to nerve agents is lethal even at very low concentrations, and death can occur within one to ten minutes after direct inhalation of a lethal dose. They can be inhaled, ingested, or swiped on skin or clothes. A police officer who handled the Skripals was also hospitalized after entering the Skripals' home. Police think the poison had been smeared on their front door, where they found the major concentration of the nerve agent. 

Many British lives were put at risk by the brazen attack.

What a nerve agent does to the body is basically disable the “off” switch on the nervous system. This means regular body functions go on overload. The victim starts sweating, vomiting, and frothing at the mouth. Followed by convulsions. Eventually, the muscles give out and they fall. This can lead to paralysis and suffocation.

There is an antidote, atropine. Yes, that’s the atropine thatI mentioned earlier in this series. It comes from plants of the Solanaceae family like nightshade, datura, Jimson weed, mandrake, and belladonna.

Atropine can be found in Datura
The first nerve agents were discovered by Nazi scientists who were working on developing pesticides. In 1936, one of the German chemists synthesized a molecule that was highly efficient at killing insects. The only problem is that it was great at killing people, too.

It also means nerve agent poisoning can be mistaken for pesticide poisoning.

Hitler’s military got hold of the dangerous pesticide and named it “tabun” after the German word for taboo. Tabun is now known as GA. The G-series nerve agents are so named for their discovery by Germans: sarin (GB), soman (GD), and cyclosarin (GF). Although the Nazis stockpiled nerve agents during World War II, they never deployed them. 

During the Cold War, scientists worked on developing even deadlier nerve agents. And they have been used for individual murders as well as mass killings.

VX, “venomous agent X,” was discovered in Britain in the 1950s.  For years, a similar chemical called VG was sold as the insecticide Amiton, before it was pulled off the market for being too toxic.

Nerve agents were developed as insecticides
VX was the nerve agent used to assassinate Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in 2017. In spite of the fact that Kim Jong-nam had atropine with him at the time of the attack, he died of the toxin.  The poison made him immediately incoherent and he wasn’t able to tell authorities what was wrong before he died 15 minutes later. (The atropine tablets probably wouldn’t have helped anyway. Only an injection could have fought off such a lethal attack. ) 

There were long rumors that the Soviets had developed an even more powerful nerve agent, “Novichok” or “newcomer” later during the cold war. It was supposed to be undetectable by the lab tests of the time.

But there was no proof of the existence of Novichok in the west until the attempted murders in March. But now British scientists say that the weapon that attacked the Skirpals and the British policeman was indeed Novichok.

Of course the Russians deny they have any Novichok and insist know nothing of the assassination of their turncoat spy.

They are shocked, shocked at such an accusation.  

But the US, UK and European Union have retaliated against the alleged Russian attack by expelling hundreds of Russian diplomats, and the Russians have responded in kind. The poisonings have caused what is now a major international diplomacy crisis. 

Although the Russian denial is more improbable than any Ian Fleming plot, if the Novichok really didn’t come from the Kremlin, the Russian story would provide a rip-roaring plot for a spy thriller.

What if the Russians really had destroyed all their WMDs after the fall of the Soviet Union? What if one rogue spy got hold of all the Novichok, and was intending to murder everybody who knew about Novichok and frame the oh-so-innocent Russians in order to start a world war? 

All the rogue spy would need is a fluffy white cat and then he could move on to World Domination!

Where is James Bond when we need him?

Here's a List of All the Posts in the Poison Series



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Friday, February 23, 2018

Mercury: Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #32


19th century hat makers often suffered from mercury poisoning
Mercury, also known as “Quicksilver,” is an elemental metal with the symbol Hg and the atomic number 80. It’s another one of those heavy metals that’s toxic to humans—a neurotoxin that is dangerous in all its forms.

Mercury is a liquid at room temperature (which seemed really cool to me as a kid.) But that liquid easily vaporizes into the air around it. Breathing that air can poison you. Who knows how many of us destroyed brain cells by breaking a fever thermometer to play with the liquid inside when we were curious (and naughty) children?

The metal is usually found in deposits of something called cinnabar (mercuric sulfide). The red pigment called vermilion is made of ground cinnabar.

Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter was inspired by real 19th century hat makers who “went mad” with a form of mercury poisoning. It was caused by a mercury compound used in processing felt. (Although the Mad Hatter doesn’t actually show any signs of mercury poisoning.)


Uses of Mercury


Luckily, mercury is no longer used in felt, and other industries are phasing it out of use. Mercury filled fever thermometers were outlawed in the US in 2002 for over-the-counter sales

It was also in use for many years for dental fillings. I know I’ve got some.

Mercury vapor is still a very important component of fluorescent lighting. When electricity passes through mercury vapor, it produces short-wave ultraviolet light which causes the phosphor in the tube to “fluoresce” and create light.

Compounds of mercury are still found in some over-the-counter drugs, including topical antiseptics (especially as Mercurochrome.) It’s also still used in stimulant laxatives, diaper-rash ointment, eye drops, and nasal sprays. It can also be found in cosmetics, like mascara. (In 2008, Minnesota became the first US state to ban the use of mercury in cosmetics.)
The only metal that's liquid at room temperature


Mercury is also a byproduct of a number of industrial processes, such as burning coal. Vaporized mercury from coal burning can make its way into soil and water, where it poses a risk to plants, animals, and humans. 



The Three Forms of Mercury


Mercury can be found in three forms:

#1 Elemental mercury. That’s the one in glass thermometers. It’s not harmful if touched, but can be lethal if you inhale the vapor it emits.

#2 Inorganic mercury is the kind of mercury used to make batteries. It’s deadly if you eat it.

#3 Organic mercury known as methylmercury, is the kind found in fish that are high on the food chain, like tuna and swordfish. (consumption should be limited to 170g per week). It can be deadly when ingested over long periods of time, because it builds up in the system. Methylmercury is highly toxic and it forms when mercury dissolves into the water.

High level exposure to methylmercury is known as Minamata disease. 

Qin Shi Huang

Mercury in History

Ancient people all over the world seem to have  been as fascinated by mercury as I was as a child.

China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, believed that mercury could give everlasting life and managed to cut his own life short by drinking a mixture of mercury and powdered jade while aiming for that immortality thing.

The ancient Maya and other pre-Colombian peoples were also enamored of mercury and large quantities of it have been found in Mayan ruins and the pyramids at Teotihuacan.

In Ancient Egypt and Rome, cinnabar was used as a cosmetic, and the ancient Greeks used it as an antiseptic.

In Moorish Spain, it was used to make stunning reflective pools.


Mercury in Medicine

Did Mozart die of mercury poisoning? 

Mercury compounds have also been used since ancient times as a medicine. Chinese traditional medicine uses cinnabar to treat a number of ailments.

Mercuric chloride was used from the 17th-19th centuries to treat syphilis, although it is so toxic that sometimes the symptoms of its toxicity were confused with those of the syphilis it was believed to treat.

Many people believe Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died of mercury poisoning from the medicine he took to treat his syphilis.

Mercuric chloride and a mercury-honey syrup called “Blue Mass” were prescribed throughout the 19th century for a whole bunch of conditions including constipation, depression, and toothaches. 

Abraham Lincoln took Blue Mass to treat constipation. He may also have hoped it would treat his depression.

In the early 20th century, people gave their children a mercury compound as a laxative (and dewormer.) It was even used in teething powders for infants.


Mercurochrome contains mercury, but not chrome 
Mercurochrome, (the commercial name of the mercury compound merbromin) was a common item in most medicine cabinets in my childhood. 

We used it as topical antiseptic for minor cuts and scrapes. It's now banned in the US, but still widely used elsewhere.



Symptoms of Mercury Poisoning


Mercury affects the nervous system, leading to neurological symptoms:

  • anxiety 
  • irritability 
  • numbness 
  • memory problems 
  • depression 
  • physical tremors 
As the levels of mercury in the body rise, more symptoms will appear. Adults with advanced mercury poisoning may experience symptoms such as: 
  • muscle weakness 
  • metallic taste in the mouth 
  • nausea and vomiting 
  • loss of motor skills 
  • numbness in the hands, face, or other areas 
  • loss of vision, hearing, or speech 
  • difficulty breathing 
  • difficulty walking or standing straight 
  • kidney failure 
  • decrease in cognitive ability. 

Treatment


There’s no standard cure for mercury poisoning. Eliminating risk factors by making changes in diet and work or living environment may help reduce the levels of mercury so people can recover.

Besides elimination of sources of exposure, severe cases of mercury poisoning can be treated with chelation therapy.

The drugs used in chelation therapy bind to heavy metals in the bloodstream so they can be eliminated. But chelation therapy comes with its own risks and side effects, so doctors use this kind of medication only when it’s absolutely necessary. 


Mercury: The Perfect Murder Weapon?


Mercury poisoning is a "zebra diagnosis"
Mercury poisoning like what might have killed Mozart happens by accident over a period of time, as the metal accumulates in the body from frequent exposure.

People suffering from depression sometimes attempt suicide with mercury. That usually turns out to be a bad idea on many levels because the poison is so slow-acting.

One man took a large dose of mercury that ended up accumulating in his appendix. An appendectomy plus chelation cured him and he was sent home from the hospital three weeks later. (I couldn’t find out if there was enough residual poison to kill him eventually.)

There aren’t many reports of deliberate murder by mercury poisoning. That’s probably because the symptoms are cumulative and can also be ascribed to many more common diseases.

Heavy metal poisoning is a considered “zebra” diagnosis. It’s so rare that most doctors don’t consider it. (The “zebra” comes from an old saying used in teaching medical students: 'When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.')

I found one case of a woman murdered by mercury poisoning, which wasn’t diagnosed until six years after her death.

This would make mercury an ideal murder weapon for a mystery novel. It’s slow acting, has few symptoms early on, and most doctors would never consider it as a cause of death. 

What about you? Have you ever read a mystery novel where mercury was used as a poison? Do you know of any real-life situations where mercury was suspected in a deliberate poisoning? 


Here's a List of All the Posts in the Poison Series


Part 28: Mustard Gas
Part 29: Antimony
Part 30: Lead
Part 31: Opium Poppy


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Friday, January 26, 2018

Opium Poppies: Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #31


Poppies are lovely flowers that can add a big splash of color to a garden.

But one poppy papaver somniferum—the opium poppy—is poisonous to humans. (Other poppies, like the Icelandic and Flanders poppies, can be poisonous to horses, cattle and sheep, but not humans.)

The opium seeds, however, contain very little toxic or narcotic properties. They are often used in baking, especially on bagels and muffins, and cooking eliminates most of the trace toxins. (Not enough to pass a drug test, though, so don't eat poppy seeds if you know you're going to be tested.)

Don't eat the poppy seed bagel if you're getting a drug test
People can safely eat one teaspoon of raw poppy seeds for every seven pounds of body weight. That means, according to Nutritionfacts.org, that someone weighing about 150 pounds can eat seven tablespoons of raw poppy seeds at a time without ill effects.

Opium Poppy Sap


It's the white sap (called "latex') from the living plant contains that the dangerous alkaloid compound that can kill you (or, used properly, kill pain.) The latex is especially concentrated in the plant's fruit. But eating any part of the plant other than the seeds can be fatal.

Symptom of poppy poisoning are stupor, contracted pupils, slow breathing, respiratory and circulatory depression, coma and eventually, death.

That poppy latex is also the source of the drugs opium, morphine and codeine, which have been the world's preferred painkillers for at least four millennia.

Opium Poppy History


Pictures of the opium poppy have been found in artifacts from ancient Sumer. The Sumerian culture emerged in the Tigris-Euphrates region around 5000 BC.

We also know that ancient Greeks used it for its painkilling properties, who used the dried sap or "juice" as a painkiller. In fact, the word "opium" is derived from the Greek word for juice: "opos." Opium is the dried sap that is generally extracted from the poppy's fruit.
Paracelsus invented Laudanum

Opioids have been a boon to humanity ever since, since they deaden pain and induce sleep.
The name "papaver somniferum" means "sleep inducing poppy" from the Latin word for sleep, "somnum."

In the 16th century, the alchemist Paracelsus discovered that opium could be dissolved in alcohol to form a tincture that had many medicinal properties.  He called it laudanum.  By the 19th century, laudanum became a household remedy for everything from menstrual cramps and intestinal disorders to coughs and colds. It was used in many patent medicines and sold without a prescription until the early 20th century.

Control of Opioids


The addictive properties of laudanum and other opioids were not considered serious for many years, but in 1914, the US passed the Harrison Narcotics Act, which of 1914 restricted the manufacture and distribution of opiates, including laudanum.

The cultivation of the poppies themselves was banned in the US in 1942, even for California farmers growing poppy seeds as food. And in 1987, Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, was raided, his garden of heirloom opium poppies destroyed, along with all tee-shirts and other souvenirs that depicted the plant.

Gotta watch out for those opioid tee-shirts.

Cultivation of opium poppies is also banned in Canada and Australia, although it's legal in the UK for ornamental and food purposes. That's also true in most of Europe. However the poppies are banned in many Middle Eastern countries and in the United Arab Emirates you can be sentenced to a long jail sentence for possessing so much as the crumb of a poppyseed roll.

In recent years, a number of variations on papaver somniferum have been developed that produce none of the opiate latex. Those are supposed to be legal to grow in the US, but they are still controversial. Poppy seeds are also available in many US gardening catalogues in the 21st century, and prosecutions for growing ornamental opium poppies are very rare.

Banning the plants has not, of course, done anything to stem the rise of opioid addiction and overdose deaths that has recently  become epidemic in the US.

It's important to note that most of these deaths are not caused by drugs derived from opium poppies. The most deadly drugs are heroin and fentanyl, which are synthetic, laboratory-produced opioids, which are far more powerful than anything derived from the plants.

The most deadly killer is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is over 100 times stronger than morphine—the strongest drug derived from the opium poppy. Fentanyl is a relative newcomer—invented in 1960 and approved for use in the US in 1968. It is meant to be used in surgery, but because it's cheap to make, it has flooded the streets in recent years.

So the current "opioid epidemic" has little to do with the venerable opium poppy, and banning its cultivation won't do anything to stop the deaths.

But if you do run into a real opium poppy, don't eat it.

However, your mystery novel's villain might consider feeding it in a salad to Great Aunt Agatha, the nasty old bird whose estate will come to the villain as soon as the old Aggie kicks the bucket. This could even be the perfect murder if Aunt Agatha is already taking an opioid like oxycodone after her recent dental implant surgery…

Did you know that the poppy seeds on your bagel were related to opium poppies? Do you know anybody who has tested positive for drugs when the only drug they had was a lemon poppyseed muffin?


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