Archive for Poisons

Christmas chemistry, the science of holly

// December 21st, 2011 // 5 Comments » // Poisons

pudding with holly

Chocolate orange icecream pudding with side of holly. Image by webmink

Green and red, classic Christmas colours, adorn the spiky holly shrub. A sprig may garnish puddings, but garnish nibblers like me must hold back on holly for it is poisonous in large doses – though some leaves can make a tasty beverage!

Holly includes about 400 species in the genus Ilex. The cultivated species is Ilex aquifolium, and about 20 or 30 of those bright berries can kill an adult. Poisonings are more likely in pets or children, and about five berries will make a kid feel sick.

It’s the usual suspects in symptoms – sleepiness, sore tummy, vomiting, diarrhoea. Larger doses cause paralysis, kidney damage and death.

Chemically, they contain a cocktail of active ingredients. Among them are the triterpenes, precursors to steroids which are cytotoxic (kill cells), steroids and a nitrile called menisdaurin.

Traditional medicines use holly for fever, gout and chronic bronchitis.

Holly, image by 4nitsirk, flickr

A couple of species native to North America, I. vomitoria aka yaupon and I. cassine, make caffeine and were used to make “black drink”, a stimulating brew also used as a vomit-causing emetic.

South American species I. paraguariensis contains as much as 1.6% caffeine (five times more than the above species) and some of the cocoa chemical theobromine in their leaves, and tasty tannins.

Also called yerba mate, I. paraguariensis is brewed to make mate tea, which is delicious. It’s pronounced MAH-tay, but be careful not to put the emphasis on the second syllable. Wikipedia says that makaes mah-TAY, which means “I killed” in Spanish.

So it’s fine to have a sprig of holly in the house for Christmas, just don’t make a holly pie out of it!

Tales of the demon core

// September 21st, 2011 // 3 Comments » // Poisons


Plutonium sphere and tungsten carbide blocks. Image by Los Alamos National Laboratory

On August 21, 1945, the demon core claimed its first victim. Harry K. Daghlian, Jr. was at Los Alamos, a secret laboratory in New Mexico where scientists worked feverishly on the equally secret Manhattan Project. To the outside world, at least those with sufficient security clearance, it was known simply by the mailing address – postbox 1663.

This particular night, Harry was working alone in the lab, stacking heavy blocks of tungsten carbide bricks around a core of plutonium. The bricks were to act as a neutron reflector, which would hopefully cause plutonium to reach the critical threshold at a much lower mass.

Criticality was, well, critical to making a nuclear bomb. It was that particular point when moments of nuclear fission supply the energy for more fission. At that point and beyond, fission runs away with itself and becomes self-sustaining, exuding radiation as it goes.

Just as he was about to place the final brick, intent on the delicate construction like a small child building their first block tower, the neutron counters sounded a warning. He froze. The numbers showed that if he added that one last brick, the plutonium would become supercritical. Slowly, heart pounding in his ears, he moved his hand back. As he did, the brick slipped through his fingers, fell, landed right in the center with a thud like a nail in a coffin.

What was it that made him drop that brick? Was it the beads of sweat that coated his hands as he realised what could happen? Was it that infallible fear-fulfillment that sends learning bicyclists directly to the obstacle they want to avoid? Or was it indeed a demon?

Either way, that final brick flipped the system into a critical reaction and radiation began bursting forth.

Harry panicked and tried to knock the brick off. No luck, it was a good four kilos. With a deep, shaky breath and a sour taste in his mouth, he disassembled the bricks as fast as he could until the reaction stopped.

By that time, Harry had received about 510 rem of neutron radiation, resulting from 1016 fissions. Unfortunately he became the first known fatality resulting from a criticality accident, and died less than a month later from acute radiation poisoning.

The demon core smiled.

Nine months later to the day, physicist Louis Slotin was tickling the dragon’s tail. It was an extremely high risk experiment to find the point when a sphere of plutonium, the same one which claimed Harry’s life, would become critical from the position of neutron reflectors – in this case, two half-shells of beryllium. Plutonium was placed inside one half, like a yolk inside an eggshell.

Recreation of Louis Slotin's experiment with plutonium core and beryllium

As the top half was raised and lowered, machines measured the activity from the core. Louis was showing seven other scientists how it was done.

“Lift it up and the activity is reduced,” said Louis, demonstrating. His thumb was crooked inside the thumbhole of the beryllium, allowing him to hold it rather like a bowling bowl. “Watch as I carefully lower the beryllium.” He slowly moved it down, down, down. The scintillation counters started to beep faster. Louis had done this almost a dozen times before, and had helped assemble the Trinity core, the first detonated atomic bomb. It never failed to amaze him, but he didn’t particularly like his work with bombs, and was training a replacement, Alvin Graves, to take over while he went back to biophysics.

“If you allow the beryllium spheres to close completely, the plutonium will reach critical mass,” he cautioned, brandishing a flathead screwdriver with his other hand but keeping both eyes on the core. “To get it as close as possible to that point, I have found a simple screwdriver does the job quite well.” He put the screwdriver tip between the beryllium as he lowered his hand further, until only a tiny space separated the two halves.

At that point, the unseen demon flexed. The screwdriver slipped.

The watching scientists later described a blue light and a wave of heat, and Louis tasted something sour in his mouth. Immediately, as if on reflex, he jerked his hand back to break the beryllium sphere and end the reaction. His body, crouched over as it had been during the experiment, had shielded the other scientists from most of the radiation.


Detonation of the demon core at Bikini Atoll

At once they all left the building, Louis vomiting as soon as he was outside. He was rushed to hospital, but even numerous blood transfusions couldn’t save him.

Louis had received the equivalent radiation of someone standing one and a half kilometres from an atomic bomb blast and died nine days later in the presence of his parents.

After the accident, all future criticality testing was ‘hands off’ and scientists worked through machines like the Godiva devices.

As for the demon core, it was detonated later that year during Operation Crossroads testing at Bikini Atoll, which remains uninhabited to this day.

Did the CIA spike a bakery in France with hallucinogens?

// August 27th, 2010 // 6 Comments » // Drugs, Poisons, Sex and Reproduction, The Realm of Bizzare, Unethics

On August 15, 1951 a small town in southern France called Pont-Saint-Esprit briefly entered the twilight zone. Hundreds of people reported acute psychotic episodes and physical symptoms such as nausea. They experienced traumatic hallucinations, and 50 of those affected were put in asylums. Five died. The event was later traced back to pain maudit – cursed bread.

In 2009 American journalist Hank Albarelli cited evidence that it was actually caused by CIA experiments into LSD. His book A Terrible Mistakesuggests the mass hallucinations experienced that day was a government funded field experiment into the newly found drug.

There would be potential for LSD to be used as chemical warfare – sprayed onto an army it would turn soldiers into… well… I don’t know but with guns involved I think it would be bad. I’m not sure if his conclusion is correct, but his article makes a compelling argument.

I have to say, conspiracy theories really do it for me. I think they’re great. Nothing like a little paranoia to keep you on your toes. There are, however, other opinions on what caused the Pont-Saint-Esprit madness.

One explanation is ergotism. Ergot is a group of fungi (most prominently Claviceps purpurea) which grow on rye, wheat and related grain-producing when-I-grow-up-I-want-to-be-bread plants. The fungus produces a neat little cocktail of alkaloid drugs which cause spasms, diarrhea, nausea and hallucinations – similar to those experienced at Pont-Saint-Esprit that fateful day.

In fact, the psychosis could have been caused by ergot or LSD, both have similar symptoms. LSD was first derived from the ergot alkaloid ergotamine. Controlled doses of ergot poisons have been used to treat migraine headaches and control bleeding after childbirth. Accidental, and dangerous, ingestion of ergot was known as Saint Anthony’s Fire (not to be confused with Saint Elmo’s Fire) for the monks of Saint Anthony who were really good at treating it. Ergotism was also blamed for Agent Scully’s hallucinations in the episode Never Again, where she gets a badass tattoo with some red ink that could have been coloured with ergot.

Greek myth time! In Ancient Greece annual initiation ceremonies were held for the cult of Persephone and Demeter. Demeter was the goddess of grain, farming and plenty, a bit of an Earth mother goddess with rich wheat coloured hair and a flowing dress. She guaranteed a good harvest. She had a daughter called Persephone, who loved the flowers. One day when Persephone was looking at some flowers in a field, Hades the god of the underworld noticed her, opened up the ground and abducted her. When Demeter noticed her daughter was gone, she was stricken with grief and refused to bring the harvest.

Persephone was trapped in the underworld for months on end. Desperate for her hand in marriage, Hades would offer her food, but Persephone know not to eat the food of the dead or she would never be able to leave. However one day Hades offered her a pomegranate, her favourite dish, and she ate six seeds.

Up in the mortal world, the land was dying. People were starving, having never experienced such famine. No matter how they prayed to the goddess she would not bring the harvest. Seeing the despair of the people, Zeus the king of the gods went down to his brother Hades and asked if he could bring Persephone back to her mother. Awkward conversation ensued.

Hades finally agreed, but oh noes! Persephone had eaten the food of the dead! The six pomegranate seeds meant that she had to spend six months of the year in the underworld as Hades wife. The other six months she would live with Demeter her mother. That’s why we have the seasons – autumn and winter when Demeter mourns, spring and summer when Demeter is reunited with her daughter.

Anyhoo, to be initiated into the Demeter and Persephone cult was called the Eleusinian Mysteries, some mysteries including this myth with added details. I think some of the mysteries included the use of pomegranate as a contraceptive (the link between fertility and death, perhaps.) You also had to fast during the initiation, and afterwards you would drink a barley drink called Kykeon and great revelations would be revealed.

Kykeon, made of barley, quite possibly tainted with ergot. Revelation or hallucination, you tell me.

Sexy smoky eyes prevented infections in Ancient Egypt

// April 11th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // Poisons, Recent Research, Sex and Reproduction

Today I made a new video about how Kohl eye makeup may have prevented eye infections in Ancient Egypt.

Ancient Egyptian Eyes Saved Lives from Captain Skellett on Vimeo.

The video was sparked by a recent letter published in Analytical Chemistry which you can read here (at least, see the abstract. You have to pay for the rest).

Did the Ancient Egyptians know about this property? The researchers seem to think so, some of the lead compounds found in kohl do not occur naturally, and must have been man made by early chemists. The Ancient Egyptians believed that kohl around the eyes would give people protection from the gods, and it was prescribed by physicians to prevent eye infections.

Still, nowadays you should check that any Kohl you’re going to use is lead free, because you could be at risk of lead poisoning. Besides, with hygiene and antibacterials, eye infections aren’t such a big problem.

Absinthe drinking makes Homer something something

// January 15th, 2010 // 6 Comments » // Drugs, Poisons

When I was but a lass, freshly ID’d and able to finally hit the local tavern, there was a rumour around that Absinthe was THE drink if you wanted to get drunk fast, and as a bonus, if you could get the proper stuff, it causes hallucinations. OMG terribly exciting. I could feel jolts of electricity down my spine as I tremulously ordered (with much nudging from my friends) a round of Absinthe.

And oh, the DRAMA of it all! Green liquid, a sugar cube on a special spoon, and all of it on fire! We could only afford one each, before our pockets resolutely returned us to ordering jugs of Sangria. The bitter licorice taste lingered on though, and we were rollickingly tipsy.

Ah, the folly of youth. ‘Tis all a lie!

At the core of the myth is that Absinthe contains essential oil from the Wormwood plant, which is psychoactive and hallucinogenic. It’s true that Wormwood does contain thujole, which is a GABA antagonist (it blocks the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA), but it’s more likely to cause seizures than hallucinations. Also the amount of thujole in Absinthe is very low because of the way the spirit is made, and nowadays there are rules about what percentage of thujole is allowed. People have studied old bottles of the stuff too, and it wasn’t found to be super-thujolated. It was very popular with poets and artists; they said the green fairy helped them be more creative.

More creative, or more deadly? One tale tells of a man who killed his family in 1906 and claimed Absinthe drove him crazy. He was actually excessively drunk from a number of drinks, and was found guilty. After this and the subsequent public outcry, Absinthe was prohibited in Switzerland. France and the USA followed suit. Nonetheless, it’s the remarkably high alcohol content in Absinthe that makes it a dangerous drink, you’d definitely die from alcohol poisoning before dying from Wormwood poisoning.

The scariest story by far is the one in Eurotrip where a guy makes out with his sister after an Absinthe bender. “Dude, you kissed your sister!” That’s way worse then killing your family!

So by all means, if you like Absinthe (I’m not a fan) then drink it, but any mind-alterations are probably just your imagination. You’re supposed to mix it with water to let the flavours come out. Has anyone actually done this? Apparently it makes the clear green liquid go cloudy, because the essential oils are not soluble in water. Now that’s science.

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