Choose Your Poison
Sometimes they’re used with sinister motive, sometimes with healing in mind. Today, as they have for centuries, poisons often turn up where you least expect them.
Here’s my pick from National Geographic Magazine May 2005: Pick Your Poison – 12 Toxic Tales feature.
Bad things come in small packages. On August 14, 1996, Karen Wetterhahn, a toxicologist and professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College, spilled a drop, a tiny speck, of dimethylmercury on her left hand. Wetterhahn, tall, thin, intense, was an expert on how toxic metals cause cancer once they penetrate cell membranes. When she spilled the poisonous droplet in her lab, she thought nothing of it; she was wearing latex gloves. What she didn’t know killed her.
The dimethylmercury was volatile enough to penetrate the glove. Five months later Wetterhahn began stumbling into doors and slurring words. After three weeks in a hospital, she slipped into a coma.
“I went to see her, but it wasn’t the kind of coma I’d expected,” recalled Diane Stearns, one of her postdoctoral students, now a professor of chemistry herself. “She was thrashing about. Her husband saw tears rolling down her face. I asked if she was in pain. The doctors said it didn’t appear that her brain could even register pain.”
Karen Wetterhahn died five months later. She was 48 years old, a wife and mother of two. The mercury had devoured her brain cells “like termites eating away for months,” one of her doctors said. How could such a brilliant, meticulous, world-class toxicologist come to such an end?
“Only lion tamers are killed by lions,” said Kent Sugdan, one of her postdoctoral fellows.
Poison surrounds us. It’s not just too much of a bad thing like arsenic that can cause trouble; it’s too much of nearly everything. Too much vitamin A, hypervitaminosis A, can cause liver damage. Too much vitamin D can damage the kidneys. Too much water can result in hyponatremia, a dilution of the blood’s salt content, which disrupts brain, heart, and muscle function.
Even oxygen has a sinister side. “Oxygen is the ultimate toxin,” says Michael Trush, a toxicologist at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Oxygen combines with food to produce energy, but our bodies also produce oxygen radicals — atoms with an extra electron that damage biomolecules, DNA, proteins, and lipids. “We are oxidizing all the time,” says Trush. “The biochemical price of breathing is aging,” Which is to say, we rust.
Oxygen is the ultimate toxin, we’re oxidizing all the time, biochemical price of breathing is aging — we rust.
Secreto Secretissima (Top “Top” Secret).
The Borgias–Alexander VI and his son Cesare–specialized in faith-based poisonings. As pope, Alexander appointed wealthy men as bishops and cardinals, allowed them to increase their holdings, and then invited them to dinner. The house wine, dry, with overtones of arsenic, neatly dispatched the guests, whose wealth, by church law, then reverted to their host. English essayist Max Beerbohm wrote:
“The Borgias selected and laid down rare poisons in their cellars with as much thought as they gave to their vintage wines. Though you would often in the 15th century have heard the snobbish Roman say…‘I’m dining with the Borgias tonight,’ no Roman ever was able to say ‘I dined last night with Borgias.’”
But the capital of conspiracy in Italy was Venice, where the architects of evil were the Council of Ten, a special tribunal created to avert plots and crimes against the state.
Ion channels are conduits, like gates, that control the transmission of electrical impulses within cells. Because their opening and shutting in the cell’s membrane controls the entry of potassium, calcium, sodium, or chloride ions, the channels and their receptors act as on-off switches that allow a thought, a heartbeat, a breath, a lift of an eyebrow to proceed — or not.
Tarantula toxins can stimulate receptors to hold a gate open in the neurological equivalent of an electrical surge, or slam it shut in the equivalent of a power failure. A busted gate provokes conditions ranging from numbing to outright paralysis on one end to muscle contractions or convulsions on the other. The same malfunction can provoke high blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmia, or epilepsy.
Spider venoms provoke such potent physiological responses that they turn a spider into a virtual Svengali.
So scientists seek the chemical mastery of the spider. Says Chuck Kristensen, head of SpiderPharm in Yarnell, Arizona:
“Who controls potassium channels, controls the world.”
The worst poison would be our own corrupted humanity — feeding our selfish needs with mortal gratification on this fleeting life. Religion itself is the opium of the masses.
Feeds well, mortal.
- Feature Main Page: Pick Your Poison.
- Photo Gallery: From Deadly Delicacy to Venom Farm.
- On Assignment: The Best. The Worst. The Quirkiest.
- Learn More: Toxicology gives you the chance to understand biology.
- Video: Fatal Attraction – Watch Texan Jackie Bibby relax in a tub full of rattlers.
- Video: Deadly Delicacy – See how Japanese fugu chefs separate the poisonous from the palatable.
- Audio: Botox & Piano – Hear selections from Leon Fleisher’s CD, Two Hands.
- Online Extra: Toxic Tale 13 – Take Two Starfish and Call Me in the Morning.
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